After Life: a bitter but strangely saccharine look at anger and grief
Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix series hits home on the lesser-seen side of the mourning process but rings hollow
“You’re so fucking lovely,” says Lisa Johnson, her kind voice wavering as she speaks to widowed husband Tony from a laptop and beyond the grave.
He watches her with sentimental eyes as she relays wisdom and life-lessons from her hospital bed, all given with love and her own subtle grief as Lisa (brilliantly acted by Kerry Godliman) tries to keep him together in the hopes her impending death won’t rip him apart.
“Look after our lovely house,” she imparts, before reeling off alarm numbers and perimeter settings, as the camera pans out to show Tony sat askew among empty beer bottles, greasy takeaway boxes and half-opened curtains.
It’s moments like this that speak volumes for those who have experienced grief in all its ruinous, syrupy glory – but Ricky Gervais’ After Life is quick to remind us it’s a black-comedy and has Tony (our bitter lead, played with unnerving relish by Gervais) – going on to call a small child a cunt, torment his also mourning brother-in-law, mock addiction and proceed to make the lives of those around him as miserable as possible.
Because he’s a good guy. But grief has made him angry, and he doesn’t see the point in playing nice anymore.
When my Dad died of cancer I didn’t truly start processing that strange, unrelenting loss (much like After Life’s Tony) until roughly two years later.
After slogging through bouts of depression, when I finally surfaced I found myself faced with newfound clarity but also sharp, suffocating anger.
That was what surprised me.
The depiction of anger and grief in film and television is often given the cathartic treatment, that one strong outburst is all you need to get those “ugly” emotions out and soon enough you can go back to cinematic tears and wistful, wet smiles: a lá Sally Field’s iconic graveyard performance in Steel Magnolias.
Regardless of its cinematic treatment, anger is a huge part of the grieving process and if left unchecked is more likely to leave catastrophic emotional turmoil in the long run.
So when one of my close work colleagues came to visit me the other week (I’m currently recovering from surgery and have found myself with quite a bit of spare time) she recommended After Life as an addition to my Watch List.
I’m not the biggest fan of Ricky Gervais, even though I’ve never watched his stand-up or enough episodes of the UK Office to get a feel for his acting.
Truthfully, I can only rate him from his antics with Stephen Merchant when telling poor Karl Pilkington to swan-dive off something with a bamboo-bungee or his inflammatory Twitter presence alone.
My Dad liked him, I think, but Gervais just rubs me up the wrong way.
And due to my limited patience these days, I wasn’t going to entertain After Life.
But my friend convinced me: “Watch it for the scenes at work, he’s a journalist for the local paper…”
She joked, “It’s just like our office!”
Oh, go on then.
Tony works as a features reporter at The Tambury Gazette but absolutely hates his job. He hates the people, hates the stories he covers and abhors coming into the office and putting the hours in (in one of the stronger, more sentimental scenes of the series, he later admits to cub reporter Sandy — wonderfully played by Mandeep Dhillon — that he never strived for anything more because he just wanted to go home and spend time with Lisa.)
And as gloomy as the whole thing sounds, After Life sort of gets local reporting right.
Tony, Sandy and Lenny (Tony Way) get summoned to the strangest stories, often suffering through excruciating encounters (honourable mentions include a Hitler Baby and someone making breast milk rice pudding – proceed with caution on the latter, that scene made me retch) but there is always an element of sweetness.
This is seen when a mundane call-out to an old man receiving five of the same birthday cards becomes a familiar scenario to those who are grieving: when you go to tell your loved one (in this case, his own wife) some good news and then realise the chair is empty.
As a fellow local reporter, this exchange struck a chord with me. We often get invited into the homes of complete strangers, offered cups of tea and gain small glimpses into their lives, usually to tell whatever story needs telling and then quickly flit back out again. It’s a strange privilege.
The old man smiles softly at Tony, adding that he has to press on with life.
Tony absolutely rejects this and continues to be a hellish bastard.
Now, I understand half the point of After Life is to ask the question, “how much of a reprehensible arsehole can you be and get away with it?”
Ricky Gervais is all about outrage-culture. He thrives on it. So it makes sense that his show would follow that formula, which goes as follows:
Tony gets angry that a child in a playground called him a pedo as he tries to talk to his nephew George?
Yeah, the kid’s a fat ginger cunt so good luck finding anyone who would want to kidnap him.
Tony gets annoyed that the postman wants to simply hand him his mail because he’s just met him on the path outside his house?
Well, Postman Pat has a fucking duty to post the post through the letterbox and not be such a nosy bastard.
The list continues as more people dare to piss Tony off, often finding themselves on the receiving end of smart, smug vitriol.
He scoffs at addiction, people who believe in God, cafe-workers, junior reporters, care home staff, sex workers — usually in a bid to always be right, always have the last word — the righteousness so deeply ingrained in Tony’s character that we could easily believe he was like this when Lisa was alive.
One of the few occasions Tony opts for the People’s Choice of Defence is when a try-hard youth attempts to mug him, and promptly gets a can of dog-food to the nose.
“Just… fuck off,” says Tony. His arms are stretched, placating, the bloodied can loosely held in one hand. His voice is tired. He looks done. “Fuck off.”
And it’s the first time I felt a pang of something for the character.
We are expected to feel sorry for Tony by virtue of his situation and you do, almost immediately. The audience can’t argue that it is an awful hand that life has dealt him, now left alone with the dog his wife loved which is now the only thing stopping him from committing suicide.
But at times, you just don’t.
Part of me wonders if this is Ricky Gervais feeling Steven Moffatt-levels of plot-smuggery, in trying to push the human condition to go against itself when it comes to feeling sympathy for a widower.
As I was watching it, I could almost feel the prodding fingers of plot trying to get a rise out of me, as if it would somehow make me believe that Tony’s unrelenting horridness would make his eventual redemption all the more sweet at the end.
My other colleague, who watched the show around the same time as me, absolutely nailed it: “It feels like it was created in a lab to extract that exact emotion from you. Like some terrible comedian-scientist, that’s figured out an exact formula: an insult here, joke there, then the big reveal.”
It’s a shame that this self-satisfaction clouds After Life because it genuinely has some wonderful moments. Tony’s interactions with his nephew George are oddly endearing for someone who leverages that he is going to hurt himself to keep people close, as are his scenes with fellow widower Anne, whose husband’s grave is right next to Lisa’s.
It’s these secondary characters, such as Anne (Penelope Wilton), sex worker Daphne (Roisin Conaty), Emma, the nurse looking after Tony’s dementia-suffering father (Ashley Jensen), co-worker Kath (Diane Morgan), addict Julian Kane (Tim Plester) and his brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) that make After Life.
They are the poor souls Tony riles against, but also the shepherds constantly trying to get him back on the path towards healing, all while dealing with their own respective heartbreaks.
In Episode Five, Matt is the one who finally gets through to Tony when George’s safety comes into question, during a mildly explosive confrontation in his office.
Gervais does a good job of making Tony sink into himself, finally realising that malicious actions and words actually have an effect wider than his own periphery, and has to admit why he is the way he is: “I do it because it makes me feel good for a split fucking second.”
Matt replies with a sobering blow: “So you can’t be trusted or held accountable for your own actions, is that it?”
In one line, the condition of the whole show is summed up. Just because awful things happen to good people, it does not give them a free pass to go out an inflict horrible things on other people. No matter how bad it is.
And to be honest, I felt like we needed more of these confrontations in order to give Tony a bit of accountability.
Throughout the series, he gets cut an amazing amount of slack, despite being an absolute blight. In fact, almost laughably, everyone keeps telling him he’s a good person.
“You’re lovely, a kind person Tony.” “You’re a good guy.” “Please be happy, Tony.”
Stacks of affirming praise are heaped on him with no effect, almost to the point where he wryly smiles and seemingly decides to push against people’s hopes for him.
Any self-reflection Tony may or may not be doing is swallowed by secondary characters working hard on his behalf, slogging away in their allocated slots of ‘teachable moments’, which ruins any building semblances of real sentimentality.
So when Tony finally decides to absolve himself, there is no sigh of relief. No feeling that he got there himself.
If anything, I watch the credits and wonder how soon he’ll be yelling at the postman again.
After Life is a strangely fresh look at grief, with the use of anger as the main component making it, in theory, a serious and grounding look at the trials we face in a loss.
There are some genuinely heartening moments, mainly due to the subtlety of acting provided by an impressive cast, but they are somewhat overshadowed by the sense the writing knows it is being clever.
In After Life, grief feels like it is used as a vessel to carry shock-value, rather than actively influencing the plot or characters — Fleabag is a good example of this done well — and as a result, it left me feeling resentful of Tony’s resolution.
But I will admit that Ricky Gervais is on to something.
Anger is something that bubbles insidiously within grief and if unchecked, can ruin our lives and the ones of those we care about. After Life gives us a thorough shake and makes us hold our loved ones a little closer at night. It might even give us food for thought.
So, I suppose Tony’s redemption is what all us mourners should strive for: that simply putting good out into the world should influence it to give good back.