Love him, hate him, or really, really hate him, Ricky Gervais' trademark insult comedy has made him a success not just from the content of his jokes, but from the sheer joy he gets from it. Even if other people aren't always laughing at his humor, he is. His laugh, which is something you'd expect from a weredolphin, is entirely distinctive and often an obstacle for him to overcome just to get through his delivery. (For the record, I like Gervais.)
Imagine, then, Gervais unleashing his comedy -- crude but biting at best, just plain mean at worst -- with zero chuckles and with only the intent to harm, and you'll have an idea of what getting through his new Netflix series After Life is like. Gervais plays against type as Tony, a man wallowing in grief after the death of his wife, who decides to say whatever is on his Nihilist mind because he simply has no more f---s to give and can't comprehend that the world doesn't bend over for him while he's mourning.
Tony works for a small town U.K. newspaper with front page stories like "Man Finds Water Stain That Looks Like Kenneth Branagh," and his return to work after his wife's death has turned his coworkers into targets of his insults. This is probably where the comedy part of this dramedy is supposed to be, but it only comes off as pointless cruelty. He'll make fun of his photographer's fat rolls on his neck, or tell another coworker that she's boring (underrated as a deadly insult, admittedly), and everyone just takes it because Tony is surrounded by sacks even sadder than him, which he's never afraid to point out. As Tony trudges through his own self-pitiful existence, he meets new characters, like his postman and the nurse tending to his ailing father (Game of Thrones' David Bradley, wasted here) in an old folks' home, and Tony leaves all of his exchanges as the victor, his self-loathing an impenetrable shield against happiness, growth, recovery, and our interest.
Sound fun yet?
Eventually Tony begins to thaw in the late episodes, and his attitude toward other people and life changes for the better. The series changes for the better, too, as it transforms from gloomy, pointless suicide watch into a man reborn through the process of healing. But there are no emotional crescendos that a series like this should plop down aplenty. And while Tony's recovery does have moments of humanity, most of them come from a snap decision to change after a new tragedy. There's no authentic or relatable growth; he simply gets better, as most people naturally do after falling into pits of despair, and that doesn't make it a story worth sitting through. Not to mention that you know exactly where the story is going about 10 seconds after he meets his dad's nurse. It's the most boring display of healing ever.
It doesn't help that you never get a chance to have a shred of compassion for Tony, because he immediately annoys the sh-- out of you. Suffering loss doesn't give anyone license to become an asshole, but Tony runs with it to the point of exhaustion, and watching Tony look at videos of better days with his wife while she was still alive does nothing. I didn't want to see Tony come to terms with his wife's death and move on, I wanted him to get flattened by a double-decker bus, or trolly, or some other jolly British vehicle. Watching a man go from awful human being to just decent human being isn't fun television. Fortunately it's only six half-hour episodes.
After Life premieres Friday, Mar. 8 on Netflix.