Review: Gervais' unflinching 'After Life' couldn't be more timely

Writer-director-star Ricky Gervais takes grief head on in the Netflix series' second season

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

There is a lot of grieving going on right now.

Grieving for family and friends. Grieving for country and jobs and lives that seem permanently altered. Heck, grieving for the distraction of sports and movie theaters and churches. Grieving for some sense of community.

Kerry Godliman and Ricky Gervais in "After Life."

So the arrival of the second season of Ricky Gervais’ “After Life” is timely to say the least. It is a show about one man, Tony (Gervais), dealing with the death of his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), from cancer. Unlike most shows that deal with grief it does not roll over into life-affirming upbeat fare. Tony struggles with his pain. He often wallows in it.

Still, this is a Gervais show (he writes and directs all episodes), so there’s a great deal of wonderfully cynical humor as well as a diverse cast of small town oddballs. Tony writes for a local paper, so he ventures out to interview people. He visits his father (David Bradley), who has dementia and lives in a nursing home, daily.

There’s even a nurse (Ashley Jensen) there that Tony fancies. Or he would fancy if he could tear himself away from the memory of Lisa. But he can’t. He spends hours at home drinking and watching videos of their life together.

Gervais mostly finds a balance between humor and deep darkness, though he sometimes falters (far too much time is spent on an obnoxious therapist).

And, like many comic actors, he seamlessly transitions to drama; even better, he poignantly walks the tightrope between despair and laughter, especially in scenes where he sits on a graveyard bench alongside an older widow (the marvelous Penelope Wilton).

“After Life” isn’t an antidote for grief, it’s an exploration and acceptance of it. Coming now, the show is almost a public service.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

“After Life: Season Two”