Ricky Gervais delivers a powerful performance that feels raw and vulnerable but retaining a sense of comedic relief that uplifts even the darkest moment.
It has been a year since Ricky Grevais’ After Life graced our Netflix screens and the world was welcomed into the stinging yet comically cathartic life of Tony as he attempts to work his way through life after the death of his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman). We return to the same struggle in series two which dropped April 24th and follows the same six-part structure of the first series and keeps the same characters that make us laugh and cry in equal measure. Be warned now of spoilers in case you haven’t seen the latest series.
The first episode reintroduces us to the cyclical and structured life Tony (Ricky Gervais) leads as he attempts to continue a life without Lisa, whilst maintaining the comic relief brought about by various characters – Pat, the postman – or comments from Tony himself. Gervais manages to expertly retain the dark and dry humour that makes him, as a comedian, so funny but also makes this show a little easier to watch. We are given a let up from the depression and sadness framing the show and the comedy is the perfect cut through to remind us that sometimes laughter can be found in the darkest places.
This series, much more than the last, felt vulnerable and raw. Inflecting the episodes with an outpour of emotion in a way that didn’t feel at all melodramatic but rather real and honest allowed more of an insight into the character and a deeper understanding to the question of why. In a way it became like his form of therapy where those he was talking to, and us watching, were able to help him process the grief and making us realise that solace, understanding, and help doesn’t always have to come from a professional or even be asked for; it can come in the form of a cup of coffee.
Series two was broadened giving more scope for the development of characters that we are introduced to in the first season. In doing so, Gervais removes the spotlight from his own struggles through life and we are allowed into the lives of the people he knows, realising that everyone is fighting something and trying to figure out their own issues. It isn’t that this is a particularly revolutionary narrative arc, but in doing so it develops the first season, making much better viewing than had we just followed the central character for six more episodes.
The narrative craftsmanship of the show works perfectly with the choice of soundtrack that accompanies each episode as it perfectly matches the sombre and melancholic mood that closes the episodes. Artists include David Bowie, Iron & Wine, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with song choices that draw out the emotion felt by those in the show and us watching it. After Life, rather than feel like a run-of-the-mill TV show, demonstrates the power of the entire viewing experience and how each element can work together to draw you in and elicit emotion throughout.
Gervais has managed to create what feels like a masterpiece of modern television viewing that often feels like we are watching a character exploration fit to be on the theatre stage. The stock characters we are given and that interact with Tony come to represent a sort of ‘everyman’ feeling, as though we all know that type of a person regardless of life experiences, and the settings that he moves between act as different set pieces wheeled on and off the stage. Each new setting comes with the characters it houses – Anne (Penelope Wilton) and the grave yard, Emma (Ashley Jensen) and Ray (David Bradley) at the care home, and Lenny (Tony Way), Sandy (Mandeep Dhilon) and Kath (Diane Morgan) at the office – and reasons to be hopeful, but now also reasons to say thank you.
The gratitude that frames season two feels more poignant now more than ever, living in a world that is so vastly different to the background of season one and where ‘thank-you’ isn’t just politeness but carries weight and meaning. Watching After Life during the time of the coronavirus pandemic reminds us that family, whatever family means to you, is everything and that we should love our loved ones more than every and cherish the time we have with them. Though Ray’s death that ended the series was sad, it was treated in such a way that rather than feel depressing, became about looking back with fondness and remembering the good even though when times are bad.
After Life is a treasure of a show. It isn’t wildly innovative and it doesn’t try to be something bigger than it is. Instead we are given a character exploration and a show that deals with themes of grief, self-harm, and suicide that does shock the audience, but it is done brilliantly in a way where the bleak comedy works to undercut what could be an otherwise depressingly morbid show.
Whilst on the surface it seems as nothing more than a show about a depressed man, there is so much happiness to be found in Tony’s life. Gervais has created something that talks to people in so many different ways, but does mean something to all that watch. It is definitely one to check out, but make sure you are ready to laugh and cry, in equal measure, at every episode.
After Life is available to stream now on Netflix. Watch the series trailer below: