Creator: Ricky Gervais | Runtime: 30mins – Episode | Comedy, Drama
Not many people can say they’ve had quite the success of Ricky Gervais, both as a writer or an actor. He’s breathed life into the UK Comedy landscape since The Office back in 2003, as well as Extras (2005) and Derek (2012) becoming notable staples as well. But in 2019 After Life was released, a show that not only proved Gervais as an actor, but also his ability to delicately tackle tough subjects in an uncompromising display. The first season saw Gervais using his new found hollowness to verbally attack the world around him, but in the end find the importance of the people surrounding you.
Season 2 is quick to remind us that Tony (Ricky Gervais) is far from over his grief, as every episode has him dwelling on an old wedding video, sipping wine somewhat problematically. Arguably this rehash of suffering makes the first season feel a little obsolete, but to disregard the suffering would be an injustice to how grief treats you, and Gervais is well aware of that. There isn’t a definitive stop to your feelings, some days are bad (like Tony finding an old bottle of sleeping pills), but some days are good, as Tony continually sympathises with lonely people throughout the six episodes.
At first glance After Life can feel like it’s been plucked straight from the tear-jerker cliches. But death, cancer and grief are important parts of everyone’s lives, and subjecting them to the most basic of story would dishearten their impact. This is what Gervais does so well, in just six episodes he explores the effect his grief has on all aspects of life. His relationship with his Dad’s nurse (Ashley Jensen) is tarnished because of a fear of guilt, leaving their relationship in a limbo of heart-breaking ‘will they won’t they’, with either outcome being a devastating realisation, for either forgetting his wife, or accepting that he will never be better. That’s exactly what grief does, it isn’t a singular feeling but rather a deep spread of sadness and self-doubting that stretches into all future feelings, and I dare to say that no show has highlighted this quite like After Life. The entire season is full of conflicts that capture the essence of Tony’s anguish, but Gervais never forgets the characters around him.
..it’s the shows ability to balance so much in such a short run of six episodes that shines, something that Gervais has made so obviously clear that he’s mastered.
One thing that the first season did so well was end with all characters having a little ‘moment’ with Tony, bringing his arc to a close while incorporating every character wonderfully, not matter how ‘throwaway’ they felt. In season 2, despite lacking the all encompassing feeling of all characters, time and space is made for real progression. Postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson) and sex worker Roxy strike up an unlikely relationship (with Tony as the messenger), giving the season some of it’s funniest moments from two people who frequent the UK TV scene. Tony’s graveyard companion Anne (Penelope Wilton) finally getting some kind of payoff, and probably the most present story is brother-in-law and boss Matt (Tony Basden) struggling with his marriage.
All of these side stories though come from the heart of Tony, as it’s difficult to make a series about grief without actual stories and arcs, they all involve Tony or individually give the series substance without outshining the wilting star that is Tony’s grief. It also allows for more of the comedy to come from the proven actors, not relying on Gervais’ anti-world outbursts to garner a laugh. Wilkinson and Roisin Conaty are wonderful together, Tony Basden gives us the old-school cringe style of Gervais’ work, as well as numerous random encounters shining through with their ridiculousness. Although not all the jokes hit (much like Gervais’ own marmite reputation), it’s the shows ability to balance so much in such a short run of six episodes that shines, something that Gervais has made so obviously clear he’s mastered.
Although die hard fans of The Office might not think so, I’d go out on a limb here and say this is the best Gervais has ever been. Balancing the numerous stories meticulously and tackling the plethora of emotions that grief can exude, as well as keeping enough of a lighthearted tone for it’s jokes to land. After Life is proof that Gervais’ talent is short-form television, finding charm and depth in a feeling that leaves people feeling so empty, and arguably the closest example to reality that has ever hit a screen, and doing it all within the confines of six wonderful episodes.