We all know what to expect from Ricky Gervais at this point in his career. Cynical, dry comedy that often undermines beliefs of cliché positivity and a ruthless evaluation of modern life; “There’s no advantage to being nice and thoughtful, and caring” Gervais says. “It’s a disadvantage”. His latest creation, After Life, is no exception.
After Life is released at a point where genre tropes are flexible in the television industry; gone are the days where comedy is primarily paired with the romance of two lovers. In fact, I viewed After Life more as a depressing tragedy with specs of comedy. Gervais’s presence gives the series its comedic factor, however, After Life is significantly more. It’s scattered with punchy, cynical one-liners; it is terribly bleak. There are moments in the series that was terribly hard to breathe through. I’ll even admit as a 24-year-old bearded man, made me weep like a young child, demanding my mother for pop tarts to my disgust when we declined me my sweet treats.
Tony Johnson, (Portrayed by Ricky Gervais) is a journalist working for a small time local paper. In the wake of his wife’s death Lisa,(Portrayed by Kerry Godliman), Tony starts to call things as they are, using a brutally honest, Nothing in life matters outlook with everyone. This is included being his “nice guy boss” and brother in Law and the lazy local postman, because why not.
Tony is plainly ill, struggling with his depression. The loss of his wife spurs this negative outlook on his life, often putting up a front, a wall that directs his now cynical nature to the people around him. At night he is a suicidal wreck. Tony spends his time watching videos of his wife who, so clearly adores him, building him a sort of “how to get your life back on track, after I am gone”. Even in death, she is looking after Tony. These moments in the series are the most impactful; remember when I said I cried like a small child? Well, these are the moments that capture the hearts of its audience. Kerry Godliman delivers such a compelling performance convincing the viewers that Tony and Lisa’s relationship was real and natural. By the same envelope, Gervais plays these scenes impeccably. I was often tricked into thinking the death of his wife was a personal loss he had endured.
Lisa is established as a character that is still very much alive in the heart of Tony’s admiration to become positive, however, because of the hole in his world since Lisa’s death, Tony dismisses that he can ever be truly happy and move forward in his version of After Life (There is a joke there somewhere and maybe a bit of a rhyme). Lisa is optimistic, even at her most challenging time. She knows that her death will leave Tony like a lost little lamb. She predicted that her husband would be ill-equipped to live without her.
Tony, on the other hand, is challenging the notion that he deserves admiration. Alive he may be, but little more than a hollow shell that desires to give up thrusts him into scenarios that are often uncomfortable, awkward, and hilarious.
There are glimpses of salvation for Tony, though unwilling he may be. As his journey moves forward episodically and at a slow pace, there are small pockets of light which begin to shine through Tony. As the world around him goes on, he too learns that people have their own problems and dreams. Although pessimistic he begins to live life, not in the past, but to look beyond Lisa to his father’s nurse Emma (Ashley Jensen), a potential love interest in Tony’s life. The pair has chemistry; however, Tony is persistent that he is not ready to move on from Lisa.
Annie (Penelope Wilton) a woman, tony meets in the graveyard where his wife is buried is suffering the same fate. She too, has lost her husband and is left alone in this world. She acts as a voice of reason for Tony. Annie is much older and wiser. Tony resides in her as somebody who is going through the same dilemma, their fates parallel. Tony confesses true feelings to Annie. He is tired of this mask of normality he fabricates every day to show people he is stronger than he is letting on; telling Annie that he hates the world for the death of his wife. Tony is so open about his suicidal thoughts and decaying mental health that it could even be seen as a call for help itself. He is searching for somebody to give him a valid reason to live, he wants to end his life, yet he has the hope to carry on. Confused as Tony may carry himself Annie provides tony with positivity in the show’s cynical manner.
As Tony’s journey moves forward, he sidesteps fragments of something more hopeful in the people he encounters in his day to day life. There is something clearly beautiful in this aspect of After Life as it showcases that there may be little joy to be had in being right.
As early as the first episode, Tony’s flat is a mess, in his depressive state he isn’t taking care of himself, which is a common trait that is present in depressed people. This was a complete contrast when Lisa was alive. As Tony watches videos back of Lisa in their house, the place is much cleaner, a happy home. Towards the end of the season, Tony learns to live, as cynical as his mindset may be, he cleans the house and remains to keep it clean. There is much elegance in this metaphor, representing the current state of Tony’s progress on his journey to move on and using this median very intelligently I may add.
The soundtrack is one of the best in the genre and accurately affects the moods of the characters superbly. The music is so dramatic at times and represents Tony’s mindset so well that it adds a second, secure layer to the scenes, complementing perfectly with each other. This really adds to why some scenes are very uncomfortable to watch and difficult to breathe through.
My beef with afterlife is the comedic value it actually brings to the table. It often falls flat. There are times the dialogue is hilarious. However, Tony is the problem here. I understand he is a confused, emotional wreck that later learns that everybody has issues that need to deal with. However, some of the dry humour is not required and sometimes feels very forced. It’s like Gervais is trying too hard to spread a message, rather than Tony showing his emotions and developing his character. Sometimes Tony seems like he reverts back to a self-loathing, selfish character only caring about himself. However, an episode earlier he became quite a supporting character after he learns of somebody else’s story. Let Tony Tell the story Gervais and let your writing do the work.