Review: 'After Life' is Ricky Gervais at his most vulnerable and best

I'm just going to put it out there: Ricky Gervais is a bit hit and miss. Don't get me wrong — the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest comedic writers of the 21st century. The Office and Extras are immediate and lasting classics, and some of the best comedies that British TV has ever had. But lately, Gervais has become more known for refusing to apologise for offending people — even when no one has asked him to. Well-known for his 'nothing is off limits' stand-up style, the phrase "just because you're offended doesn't mean you're in the right" has become something of a meme with Gervais online.

Gervais was a master of humanity, and more importantly a master of self-awareness. I longed for him to bring out another masterpiece

However true it may be, his penchant for repeating it has become something of a trademark — which, when it starts to overshadow the world-class work you've done in the past, becomes a bit of a problem. What I always loved about Gervais' work was the hawk-eye precision with which he examines the human condition — the subtle irritations, the flashes of our innermost feelings across our faces, the hilarity in the most ordinary of situations – Gervais was a master of humanity, and more importantly a master of self-awareness. I longed for him to bring out another masterpiece that would reflect the incredible talent he has for mirroring the normality of everyday life — and I got it in spades in his new Netflix series After Life.

When I saw the trailer, I was sceptical. A sitcom about a man who was taking the opportunity to be as much of a d**k as possible sounded like Gervais just wanted to... well, take the opportunity to be as much of a d**k as possible. I was interested in the plot of love and loss and how to navigate depression (I'm a glutton for emotional punishment when it comes to TV) and that's what convinced me to tune in to the first episode.

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Before I knew it, episode six was ending and I was in the foetal position on my couch drowned in my own tears (only 10 per cent of which were due to my hangover - it was the St Patrick's bank holiday). I only surfaced to go tell everyone I could find how much they needed to watch this show.

Related: Read our list of the six best books, plays and podcasts dealing with grief

Why is life worth living?

The show explores the eternal question — what's the point of it all? Why is life worth living, even when you've lost everything?

Let me set the scene — After Life follows Tony (Gervais), a man who has recently lost his wife Lisa (played by Kerry Godliman) to cancer. They had no kids, just their dog Brandy, and Tony, in the throes of a deep and unrelenting depression at Lisa's death, is finding it difficult to find anything worth living for. His friends and co-workers (a brilliant cast including Tom Basden, Tony Way, Diane Morgan and Mandeep Dhillon) do their best — they invite him out, they keep him occupied, they ignore the insults and the sarcasm he hurls their way, but the only thing preventing Tony from ending it all is the responsibility to feed his dog every morning. The show explores the eternal question — what's the point of it all? Why is life worth living, even when you've lost everything?

I surprised myself with how much I could belly-laugh at a joke while also crying floods of tears

It's not a barrel of laughs — but what it is, is an absolutely flawless reflection of how a person deals with, and hopefully eventually comes out of, depression and the grieving process. The constant anger; the frustration at other people's insistence to help; the frustration at yourself for not accepting it; the inability to enjoy a moment without remembering the grief — until, one day, you do enjoy something. And that moment gives you a little spark of hope to find the next one.

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Related: Grief comes in waves, you never know when the next one will hit

Belly laughs and floods of tears

Being funny and terribly sad in the same show is not an easy thing to do — doing it at the exact same time is nigh-on impossible. But Ricky Gervais, with the help of a wonderful accompanying cast, nails it.

The mix of reactions, often simultaneously, that After Life gives the viewer is pretty indicative of its message — there is joy to be found in the bad times. I surprised myself with how much I could belly-laugh at a joke while also crying floods of tears - I've never done that at a TV show before. Scenarios including a father unable to remember his son due to dementia; a man who hordes every scrap of rubbish in a reaction to his divorce; a sex worker being hired off the street don't exactly sound like the most humorous of situations. But they had me doubled over with the giggles. Being funny and terribly sad in the same show is not an easy thing to do — doing it at the exact same time is nigh-on impossible. But Ricky Gervais, with the help of a wonderful accompanying cast, nails it.

It was coming to terms with awful things, and terrible sadness mixed with glimmers of joy.

After Life's mantra for life is simple — it's not all about you. Everyone has their shit, and life is just about helping each other to muddle through it. I was worried that the show would be three hours of Ricky Gervais being a d**k — and it was. But it was also so much more than that — it was poignancy, and vulnerability, and beauty in the little things in life. It was coming to terms with awful things, and terrible sadness mixed with glimmers of joy. It was self-awareness — which is exactly what I wanted from Gervais all along.

After Life is Ricky Gervais back to his absolute best, and I advise that you go and watch it right now.

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Featured image via Netflix

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