Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tom Basden, Tony Way, Diane Morgan, Kerry Godliman, Ashley Jensen
Cinematography: Martin Hawkins
Editor: Mark Williams
Streaming on: Netflix
At one point in After Life Season 3, in his own offensive way, Tony apologizes to brother-in-law and boss Matt for “stealing all the sympathy” after the death of his wife, Lisa. He admits that his spiral hasn’t allowed Matt the time to grieve for his own sister. He feels bad for hijacking the narrative. He does this while Matt is in the hospital after suffering from a minor heart attack while trying to beat Tony in a sport – which is to say Tony realizes that Matt has a broken heart, too. He realizes that he has been monopolizing the language of sadness. Season 3 is about Tony letting go, both literally and figuratively. He lets the series focus on characters other than him for once.
There’s a lot of Good Girl Brandy. Tony’s beloved dog is everywhere: on his bed at night, in videos of Lisa, at the cemetery, in the woods. We see a fair bit of James and Brian, the two unlikely friends who seem to be starring in a slacker tragicomedy of their own. We see a bit of Emma, the nurse who’s frustrated that her ‘equation’ with Tony is going nowhere. We see quite a bit of Tony’s colleague, Kath, and her doomed efforts to find love. We see a bit of Coleen, the depressed 30-year-old who replaces Sandy from last season. We also see a bit of Tony’s late father in the home videos, back when he was not suffering from dementia yet. Anne has found a fellow griever to feel lonely with. Ken is being his usual filthy-but-fun self. In short, there are more Tony-less scenes in Tambury this time around. Strands of stories are scattered across the small town. As if to suggest: life goes on. It always must.
But there might be another angle. Season 3 is cathartic, because it reveals the town that has refused to leave its crankiest resident behind. The people of Tambury subconsciously recognize that Tony is, deep inside, a kind man – and that he casually helps others to help himself. And so, they keep giving him an opportunity to. It’s like a conspiracy of kindness. People spell out their problems to him without an ounce of subtlety, almost like they’ve been meeting secretly to decide how to bring the best out of him. Some are worse ‘actors’ than the others. Postman Pat rings Tony’s bell every morning and blurts out his relationship issues. Coleen, the new recruit, keeps repeating that she’s 30, broke, homeless and traumatized, almost as though she’s been tutored to win Tony’s attention. Kath, who’s been famously cold and snooty for the first two seasons, opens up about her crippling loneliness. Maybe she, too, suspects that it might give Tony a sense of purpose. And for a brief bit, it does. Granted, all of this may sound like a bizarre theory. But even if the Tambury folks haven’t explicitly teamed up (maybe it’s Matt’s idea – OK, I’ll stop), each of them expresses an urgent neediness that pushes Tony towards a finale of enlightenment. When all else fails, they gently offer him the wisest of words on a platter. The women are more direct. Lenny’s to-be wife June, for instance, breaks the banter to convince Tony that his guilt to cash Lisa’s life-insurance cheque is irrational. Tony is visibly moved by her eloquence. Anne, at the cemetery, tells him that “Science makes us stay alive longer, feelings give us a reason to want to”.
Grief, of course, gives Tony the license to lash out and integrate creator-actor Ricky Gervais’ stand-up persona into an actual story – like the way he flings a cactus through the window of a car that breaks a zebra crossing, the way he taunts a young father who’s playing with his baby at a cafe, the way he insults a pub manager who refuses to let him spread his father’s ashes there, or even the way he keeps teasing Matt about his “weak little-girl heart” after defeating him in every sport. The humour is morbid and crass, but it exists so that every other scene can succumb to a moment of unexpected depth. The sheer literature of Ann and June’s advice is poignant, because it halts Tony’s – and Gervais’ – acerbic personality for a minute and humbles him into gratitude. His reaction is reminiscent of Stephen Colbert’s when Keanu Reeves punctures the levity of his late-night show with a profound answer to his seemingly funny question. “What happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” is met with a measured breath, followed by “I know that the ones who love us will miss us”. You can see Colbert react with muted awe, just like Tony – and we viewers – often tend to when confronted by the truthfulness of the people of Tambury. They’re silly so that they can surprise us with their smartness. It’s a lovely one-two punch, especially for those turned off by the emotional reiterations of After Life.
Even the ‘characters’ Tony interviews as a reporter aren’t just comic fodder. Put together, they offer him a 360-degree view of life – its perseverance (a woman who’s self-published 50 novels), its colour (a swinger couple), its limits (a glutton who gets banned by an all-you-can-eat buffet place), its frailties (a widow cheated out of her savings by a fake cop) and its unfairness (children at a cancer hospital). Tony judges the oddballs, but the helpless old woman and the sick children will him into appreciating the others for living – and not just existing – to the fullest. None of this is implied, but it’s felt. The finale is a sincere culmination of Tony’s shapeless journey. For the first time in months, he feels defined. He looks blessed. He sees the people who allowed him to find purpose in fixing them.
The bitterness gives way to a refined dignity; it’s like watching an irreverent comedy confess that it was a coming-of-adage drama all along. The final shot is open to interpretation, but by now we know that Brandy is named after the medicinal potion carried by rescue dogs on their necks in the harsh winter. We know that love is as much of a crutch as humour. We know that grief is not the threat of an afterlife but the promise of it. And we know that tolerance is the cornerstone of empathy. After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a town to restore a spirit.