After Life is simultaneously a masterpiece of dark comedy and an incredibly difficult show to recommend. In a time where Ricky Gervais’s stand-up persona has increasingly become defined by contrarian edgelord humor, this soulful and reflective show comes as a surprise. This is easily the writer/actor’s best work in years, a tragic piece of comedy that scraps dark edges of the soul peppered with fleeting moments of whimsy.
Gervais plays Tony, a reporter for a small free weekly newspaper whose wife Lisa has just died of breast cancer. All he has left of her is memories and a series of videos from their marriage. Lost in his mourning, Tony flails through his day job covering absurd local news stories and being unpleasant to his friends.
Pop culture often deifies assholes, giving them a heart of gold underneath it all. But Tony isn’t a fun asshole. He’s a being of pure rage, slowly losing control over his impulses and ability to temper his words. No one laughs at his jokes anymore. They’re simply cruel. Tony doesn’t know how to keep being Tony after his wife died, even though she tried to warn him this would happen.
After Life could chosen to leave Lisa off screen, but through their videos, she becomes one of its most important characters. Her face is the first we see, and her message to Tony ends up being the plot of the series. “You were never very good at hearing how lovely you are. But you are. You’re lovely,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “but you’re absolutely fucking useless. So I thought I’d leave you with a little guide to life without me.”
Through the six episode season Tony fights against healing. Along with his life, he’s lost the will to live. Only his responsibilities to his dog and his Alzheimer’s ravaged father keep him from taking his own life. Instead, he floats through existence doing the bare minimum and waiting until he’s free to leave.
In many ways, the show is a series of vignettes about desolation. Tony’s every interaction explores a different aspect of how humans cope with suffering and loss. Some turn to drugs, others talk to graves, while one old man finds the face of Kenneth Branagh in a water spot. The sheer weight of these interactions makes the show’s frequent jokes feel like gasps of air.
It’s difficult to universally recommend After Life because it will be a harrowing experience for many people. It was for me. As someone who’s suffered from both life long clinical depression and an abnormally high rate of death among my friends, After Life was often excruciating. Rarely do we see depictions of mourning like this in pop culture.
Shows that tackle these topics tend to have an agreement: they treat life like it’s sacred. One of the most powerful, and deeply upsetting, aspects of After Life is its willingness to question if someone who doesn’t want to live should keep on out of obligation. Generally if a Gervais character is an asshole, he’s just an asshole. Here the bridges he burns are so there’s nowhere to walk back if he finally finds the strength to die. You can see the pain on the face of his friends as he keeps pushing their limits with each monstrous action.
Rather than romanticize Tony as an edgy outsider with poetic grief, he’s a house fire. And that’s what keeps After Life from being dangerous. While it questions if suicide is always wrong, it never denies that it’s a selfish act. Most importantly it shows how sometimes well-meaning friends can enable a person suffering from crippling depression. Tony weaponizes his friends’ understanding, using it as a get out of jail free card until they’re about to snap.
The unsung star of the show is Anne, played by Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey fame. Anne’s husband is buried next to Lisa, setting the stage for a series of conversations on mourning that end up being more about surviving. It’s a funny gorgeously warm performance, cutting through the incredibly thick darkness that prefaces and follows her introduction.
So where are the laughs, you might ask? While After Life won’t set records for laughs per minute, it’s still a crushingly funny show. From a pure comedy standpoint the special interest stories Tony covers are a delight. But even the show’s more contemplative moments are full of witty one-liners. Hell, even Tony’s abject cruelty to his friends earns laughs because of the way they shrug off his constant escalations.
Every piece of great art isn’t for everyone, and I would never ask someone to watch After Life, even as I wholeheartedly recommend it. After Life doesn’t treat loss like something silly you get over but a tide that can pull you under if you ignore it. If that’s your idea of comedy, then buckle in.
After Life comes with the highest possible trigger warning for people suffering from suicidal idealizations. As a whole, the first six-episode arc is a healing and beautiful story about growth. Before the light comes through, the bleakness of its clouds is all-encompassing. In many ways, that’s why it’s powerful. As someone who’s haunted by deaths, that’s why I found it healing. It’s also why it feels irresponsible to recommend it without warning.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.