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Television Netflix’s After Life from Ricky Gervais: Mad, melancholy and powerful

Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes.

Natalie Seery/Netflix

There’s an insane amount of sci-fi, fantasy and horror material floating round. And more paranormal drama than is healthy for any human being to consume. A robustly adult life should not include quite so much childish nonsense. As I see it.

Here, for instance, is the description of Immortals, which arrived on Netflix recently: “Driven by revenge, human-turned-vampire Mia sets out to vanquish Dmitry, a ruthless vampire leader who seeks an artifact that grants immortality.” Right. Well, good luck with that Mia. Send us a postcard when you get there.

If you ask me, and didn’t, but I’m here so I’ll continue, there ought to be a pop-culture equivalent to Canada’s Food Guide. A nutrition guide for watching TV to be produced by Health Canada.

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No, wait. That’s a bad idea. Some politician might take me up on the notion. And the engine of indignation about this, that and the other is already overheated in Canada. It’s your business what you do with your frontal lobes.

Still, there’s too much fantasy content right now. No series is complete without characters who have superpowers or super ability. Little wonder that a lot of people linger online looking at videos of a cat stuck up a tree.

Into this situation, thank heavens, comes the latest series created by Ricky Gervais. And it’s a tonic. After Life (now streaming on Netflix Canada) is infuriatingly difficult to define. It is by turns outrageous, uplifting, unflinching, sad, hilarious and angry. Mostly, it’s an exercise in melancholy, and I adored it.

Gervais plays Tony, a middle-aged man who is surly, rude and suicidal. Why is he in this state? His wife died, that’s why. When we first meet him, Tony is watching the video his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) made for him before she died. She gives him detailed instructions about everyday things, such as feeding the dog and using the dishwasher. She does this because, as she tells him, he’s decent but hopeless with everyday things. She also tells him not to grieve much, but get on with life and cherish the time they had together.

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After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a superpower – not caring about himself or anyone else – but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.

Natalie Seery/Netflix

Tony ignores everything she tells him. He goes beyond being hopeless to absolutely wallowing in his hopelessness. Bereft, his motto is this: “There’s no advantage to being nice and caring.” He argues with everyone from the first person he meets during the day to the last person he speaks with at night. This is a drawback, since he works as a journalist at a small-town newspaper and he’s professionally obliged to be, if not cheery, then at least interested in other people.

The comedy derives at first from his rants and insults. And in part what Gervais is doing here is satirizing a certain type of British comedy. The fictional town of Tambury looks and feels like the setting for a thousand British series and the people he meets while working for The Tambury Gazette are characters from countless other series. What’s different here is that Gervais is unleashing unbridled scorn on the people, the town and a whole way of life.

And then he isn’t. After Life will disappoint you if you expect full-throttle Gervais-style scorn. The six-part series of half-hour episodes changes course. It’s a hard, mean tale with a soft centre. You see, Tony keeps going to see his elderly dad (played by David Bradley from Game of Thrones and numerous British series), who is elderly and mentally infirm. He does this for two reasons. First, his dad thinks that Tony’s wife is still alive and keeps mentioning her. Second, Tony gets to sneer at the nurse (Ashley Jensen) who takes care of the old man. Why would anyone bother? Then, on one visit, she snaps at him, “You’re like a troll on Twitter. Just because you’re all upset, it means everyone else has to feel upset.”

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It might seem implausible that this reaction actually shifts Tony’s perspective. But it does. A good deal of After Life is implausible. It is a unique creation, veering wildly from Gervais’s peerlessly funny rants to heartbreaking grief, to an utterly benign view of life and a rejection of negativity and cruelty.

Thing is, it is no more implausible than all that fantasy and sci-fi content that takes up so much space in the popular culture. It’s funny, truthful and, even when it rises from sourness to sweetness, it is abidingly melancholy. Such as a lot of ordinary life is.

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