Creator: Ricky Gervais
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Penelope Wilton
“Tony tries to adapt to life after his wife dies.” That’s how Wikipedia describes the first episode of the first season of Ricky Gervais’ After Life. The series opens with Tony (Gervais), a journalist in a fictional British town called Tambury, contemplating suicide. He has just finished watching a video of Lisa, his late wife, for the nth time. His beloved dog, Brandy, barks at him. Eleven episodes later, in the final episode of the second season of After Life, Tony is still trying to adapt to life after his wife dies. He is still contemplating suicide. He has just finished watching the same video of Lisa, and good girl Brandy is still keeping an eye on him. A lot has changed, but nothing has changed.
On a storytelling level, Season 2 of After Life is easy to dismiss. It plays out like a repeat of Season 1: the same routine, the same snark, the same misanthropy and the same awkward effort to acknowledge the kindness around him. It takes you on a stroll only to plonk you back at the beginning. There’s no newness. Nothing moves “forward”. Time passes, and even though the last season concluded with a bit of hope – where he works up the courage to ask his father’s nurse out – the funk has descended back upon Tony for six more episodes. His colleagues understand him better, but that’s about it. He’s slightly more empathetic, but his sadness, too, has aged like the fine wine he drinks every night to weep himself to sleep.
On a storytelling level, Season 2 of After Life is easy to dismiss. It plays out like a repeat of Season 1: the same routine, the same snark, the same misanthropy and the same awkward effort to acknowledge the kindness around him. It takes you on a stroll only to plonk you back at the beginning. There’s no newness. Nothing moves “forward”.
It’s natural to misread this sinking central character’s inability to rise as a TV show’s inability to evolve. But our disappointment with the emotional inertness of this season is largely down to the fact that it doesn’t show us what we want to see. We want to see a point, an arc, ups, downs, bleak beginnings and (relatively) happy endings. We want to see Tony’s past, reflections of his future, his turnaround and his strength. But grief is not a narrative; it is the silent madness that numbs a narrative into submission. It is not living, it’s dying more slowly.
Instead of depicting grief as a five-stage theory, After Life underlines the individualism of grief by expressing it as a cyclical loop of depression. Just like each body reacts differently to a disease based on metabolism and immunity, every mind is distinctly infected by a sense of tragedy. Tony knows the cure, he’s read about it, he’s seen it. But he is addicted to grief, and Season 2 is his relapse. A relapse, by nature, is disappointing and discomforting to watch. It’s also heartbreaking, because Tony looks like the kind of drowning man who looks embarrassed that he is subjecting us – and himself – to the same sequence of pain all over again. You can sense that he’s trying hard to be the protagonist we need him to be, but he just can’t shake off the familiar rhythm of his life, and therefore, the show.
When Tony senses someone in pain in the office, he takes them out for a quick coffee. While hearing them out, he eventually ends up reminiscing about his Lisa, tearing up, thereby helping the other person to put their own problems into perspective. It’s a masochistic brand of vigilantism, but Tony knows no better way to exercise his empathy. As a result, Tony also finds a broken piece of himself in each of the odd subjects he interviews – whether it’s a bitter 100-year-old lady, a lonely widow and her cat, a young woman with a botched-up lip job, a senile pensioner who mistakes a dog-waste box as his mailbox, or a middle-aged man behaving like an eight-year-old girl. The interviews reflect the design of a modern-day standup routine. There’s a brief moment in each of these scenes where the farfetched comedy suddenly morphs into a tragedy of kindred souls. For instance, after the pensioner is presented as a visually challenged nutcase (“I thought my sister in Australia was ignoring me”), Tony notices his ‘homeless’ look. “Who do I clean up for, really?” the man asks, deadpan, before revealing that he’s never had a relationship because “it ends”. Then he proceeds to urinate on the road. Similarly, Tony offers the deluded widow a hug, startling her with his sensitivity before leaving.
All of these people – including his dementia-afflicted dad, the shaggy postman, the podgy sex worker, the obscene therapist, the rotund photographer and his strange new stepson – behave like “characters,” absurd and unreal, almost as if they were deliberately designed to tempt Tony out of his gloom. They’re the sort of stereotypical English outcasts that irreverent comedians prey upon. But when we see Tony continually resisting the urge to have a crack at them, and instead, listening to them and accepting their feelings, these moments feel more pronounced and profound – because we are, in a way, watching Ricky Gervais resisting his own on-stage personality in service of a humane, humbled Tony. Even the show’s situations are outlandish, but Tony is often overcome by reality before he has a chance to react to them. At one point, a theater group puts up a performance of dysfunctional glory, but Tony is interrupted by a serious phone call that jolts him back into the gallows of grief. As if to say: The suffering is so strong that not even Ricky Gervais can mock it. The loss is so pure that not even nihilism can dilute it.
The creator-actor is particularly perceptive in his scenes with the older woman, Anne (Penelope Wilton), at the cemetery. Twelve episodes later, they’re still sitting on that bench, missing their respective soulmates while hoping that mundanity is the medicine of life. It’s here that Gervais truly manages to evoke the essence of Tony’s denial. In Richard Curtis’ About Time, a young man with the power to time-travel discovers that he can’t travel back in time to meet his late father anymore if he has another child – and looks ahead – with his wife. He is torn between the past and the future. Tony, too, is a man so intent on preserving the memory of his marriage that he just can’t look ahead. The videos are his time-travel device, and the nurse is his family from the future. His depression is a way of protecting his pristine love. Moving on might have made for good, uplifting entertainment. But After Life isn’t about time. It is about space. Space for the kind of love that moves mountains, and space for the kind of grief that turns life into an immovable mountain. This is, after all, a rare show that evolves by refusing to evolve.