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After Life: Why Ricky Gervais' dark comedy is his sweetest TV show yet
It may document the struggles of a lonely, angry widower, but After Life is joyous television to lift your spirits and celebrate the little things in life.
Ricky Gervais’ outspoken public persona has never been really been reflected in his TV shows.
Tim and Dawn's festive kiss to Yazoo's Only You in The Office Christmas special. Andy Millman's desperate apology to Maggie, while stuck in the Celebrity Big Brother house with Lionel Blair in Extras. Derek's baby monkey riding on a pig.
OK, ignore the last one, but for a comedian so often portrayed as 'outrageous' and 'offensive', his TV sitcoms are always had heart at the centre of everything he does, even if sometimes its buried deeper than others.
After Life is a six-episode sitcom about Tanbury Gazette journalist Tony, who has been unable to deal with the death of his wife from cancer and is lashing out at the world.
He believes he has found a new super power in being brutally honest to everyone he meets, no matter how crude, cruel or rude, and has all but given up on life – with the only thing stopping him from ending it all being his pet dog.
Cancer, death, suicide, existentialism… local journalism. None of these immediately grab you as a rich source of giggles and most viewers will probably go into the series expecting bleakness and pitch black humour.
That expectation couldn't be more wrong, as Gervais ramps up the joy and sweetness that he has sprinkled over his previous shows and adds in an extra-large helping of life-affirming goodness.
Don't get us wrong, After Life has some of Gervais' most brutal one-liners ever - including some unforgettable scenes with a school bully and his work rival Kath (Diane Morgan).
And when Tony finds himself reaching a new low of experimenting with heroin, it's hard to imagine how this came from the same comic mind who delivered the David Brent dance or the Karl Pilkington podcasts. But behind the horribly sad story of death and depression, there is sweetness, laughter and a lot of Kevin Hart.
Here are five reasons you should watch season one of After Life on Netflix ahead of the arrival of season two.
The agony and the honesty
Ricky Gervais' biggest critics often get most aggrieved at his stubbornness and refusal to back down.
It isn't necessarily the fact that he causes offence with a joke, but the fact he doesn’t apologise or accept chinks in his armour that irks.
Gervais very firmly believes that people make a choice when they're 'offended' by a joke and that comics shouldn't alter their art to accommodate them.
But just because Gervais regularly aims his fire at those who get upset over gags doesn't mean that he’s impervious to criticism or introspection.
After Life shows that brutal honesty can be very funny, but it also explores the idea that the defence of full freedom of speech doesn't stop you being a bit of a git.
Tony's misanthropic atheist outlook on life might not be too giant a leap from the real-life Gervais, but despite his newly discovered 'super power', he's not a very sympathetic character for long stretches of the show.
Gervais isn't going soft and we’re sure that his atheism remains rock solid, but in characters like Diane Morgan's Kath and Roisin Conaty's Roxy, he exposes his soft underbelly.
Tony initially turns his nose up at Kath's life – watching Kevin Hart films on repeat – but by the end of the series and a touching snow globe moment between the squabbling co-workers, Gervais showcases a joy for the small things in life and appreciation for his own faults.
The first-class ensemble cast
Gervais has assembled an Avengers-style super squad of comic actors for After Life, pulling together some of his previous collaborators - including Kerry Godliman (Derek) and Ashley Jensen (Extras) - with national treasures such as Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) and David Bradley (Broadchurch).
Diane Morgan probably gets the most scene-stealing moments, including a classic office discussion over dream dinner party guests involving Princess Diana, James Corden and Kevin Hart.
Other familiar faces make appearances which are so much more than mere cameos. David Earl only appears in two brief scenes, but they're so deliciously surreal you won't forget them. Similarly, Joe Wilkinson makes a small Postman Pat gag so much funnier than it should be.
The chemistry between the co-stars, perhaps most notably Roisin Conaty as prostitute ("Sex worker!") Roxy, acts as the glue for a series that, at its core, is all about the relationships we hold dearest, friends, family and colleagues.
From his use of Yazoo in The Office and Coldplay in Derek to the hits of Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music and David Bowie in the film Cemetery Junction, Gervais’ choice of soundtracks are never coincidental or slapdash.
After Life is no different, with each closing sequence getting a suitably excellent soundtrack ranging from the darkness of Nick Cave's Into My Arms to the warmth of James Taylor's You've Got A Friend.
Elton John, Daughter and Lou Reed are also among the perfect-for-a-Spotify-playlist collection of artists whose music complements the action.
The wonderful world of local journalism
The focus of After Life might be on bleak topics, but Gervais never wastes an opportunity to throw in some silly giggles, none more so than when we follow accompany Tony on his beat as a features writer for the Tambury Gazette.
Poking fun at the more ridiculous side of local journalism – anyone seen a potato that looks like Lionel Richie? – Tony's trips out to meet Tambury's residents provide the biggest belly laughs.
A baby that looks like Hitler, a man who can play two recorders with his nose and, best of all, a women creating rice puddings for her neighbour with breast milk, are a refreshing palate cleanser amid the darker undertones of After Life.
Gervais' love of dogs is well known and it wouldn't be surprising if the entire premise of the series was designed for him to spend several weeks on set, stroking and cuddling his canine best friend, Anti (called Brandy in the show).
As they watch the dog's journey in flashback from puppy to loyal friend and life-saver - even cat-lovers will be desperate for a cuddle with the German Shepherd.
Watch all episodes of After Life series 1 and 2 on Netflix now.