After Life is a black humour sitcom series streaming on Netflix. It was created, written, produced and directed by Ricky Gervais. He also plays the lead character, Tony. It follows Tony’s life and journey with grief after the premature death of his wife, Lisa. Series one premiered on 8th March 2019. There are regular mentions of death, suicide, grief, sexual references, drug use, and strong language (a mere seven minutes into first episode, Tony uses the C word directed at a child, and it’s used twice more in the episode), so be warned – this series is filled with sensitive themes, crude language and dark humour throughout.
From the moment After Life starts, the viewer is aware that Lisa (played by the brilliant Kerry Godliman) has passed away. In the first scene, Lisa has recorded messages from her hospital bed for Tony to watch after her death. These continue throughout the series with lovingly thoughtful and poignant messages.
The first episode manages to seamlessly set the scene, introduce the main characters, and honestly address some of the issues that come with the package of grief. The exploration of these issues continues throughout the whole series, with realistic depictions of the raw and ugly emotions that can accompany grief.
Throughout the series, the viewer can see Tony dealing with life’s tasks and trials whilst grappling with the overwhelming heartbreak that accompanies losing a life partner. For example, he forgets to buy his dog food and feeds her a tin of cold baked beans in a kitchen filled with empty beer and wine bottles, along with a lot of dirty crockery. Gervais’ depiction of how grief can take its toll on simple everyday acts can be uncomfortable to watch, but it is the reality for many people living with grief. In my experience, I have found that a bad day with grief is more like undertaking a challenge than it is just living through the day. Grief delegates essential tasks such as eating, drinking, and washing, and replaces them with wallowing and dejection.
Throughout the series, the viewer sees Tony reacting to other people’s problems, actions, and words seemingly without care for their feelings. He finds it difficult to be engaged and interested in them because their problems seem insignificant and meagre in comparison to what he’s going through. Tony works as a features writer for the local newspaper. He interviews a resident about a water stain on his wall that looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh and is visibly drained throughout this interaction – who cares about a water stain against the devastating sorrow and uncertainty that comes with watching the love of your life die?
Tony regularly visits his Dad, Ray (David Bradley), who has Alzheimer’s and is in a care home. Ray continues to forget that Lisa has passed away, and Tony is evidently in pain each time he needs to relay the information again. His pain and bitter outlook affects care nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), and they strike up a love/hate relationship. It is a familiar scene in a griever and outsider relationship that the “outsider” doesn’t see beyond the surface. The time heals all mentality that people who haven’t experienced really significant losses seem to employ for your suffering.
Tony often visits his wife’s grave, which is the plot next to Anne’s husband’s (Stan’s) grave. They start chatting to one another and start up a friendship. Anne (Penelope Wilton) offers Tony advice and guidance, almost like a mediator for Tony’s issues. Their relationship is unlike another in the programme, as they share the same understanding and magnitude of loss.
Tony revisits home videos of himself and Lisa. Pulling pranks on one another, silly laughing when they’re drunk, days out together etc. As a griever, I found these scenes some of the hardest to watch as they are always accompanied by Tony staring at the screen with a heartrending expression, tears in his eyes. I have been in that position over and over again, wanting to hear Mum’s voice, her laugh, watch how she moved and relive her mannerisms. Desperate for any connection I can have.
This is a departure from Gervais’ earlier sitcom/mockumentary style series such as The Office, Extras, and Derek. Although After Life still retains Gervais’ insatiable wit and his brilliant “go-to” cast, each character has real depth and complexity. Gervais has strived hard to incorporate real life situations and issues in thoughtful depictions which take away pomposity. For example – Sandy (played by Mandeep Dhillon) is the main breadwinner for her household and primary carer for her disabled mother – an issue that is real and faced by tens of thousands of young people in the UK – but this isn’t her overarching storyline and you do not learn this about her until episode 3 of series 2.
I would recommend After Life to anyone. Ricky Gervais is an excellent writer and has this brilliant ability to create relatable moments for a griever, and present feelings and actions in a way that allows someone who has not suffered the loss of a loved one to have an awareness of the testing course of grief. I think every story line and relationship within it is relatable, and he is able to incorporate a diverse range of life’s issues into each episode without taking focus away from the main storyline.