If your sole appreciation of British comedian Ricky Gervais is as the gleefully-mischievous, envelope-pushing (really, breaking) host of awards show or star of his brutally honest and very funny stand-up routines, then After Life, the second season of which has just released on Netflix, will likely be quite the revelation to you.
While Gervais has given us a look at his more serious side before, After Life, which he created, wrote and directed, is where he brings together his snarky and gift for everyday broken humanity in almost gloriously perfect fashion.
Season one of the show, which dropped last year, took a profoundly moving and vigorously insightful deep dive into what it feels like to have someone you love almost more than life die and rip your world to smithereens.
It took the traditional idea of grief, that you cry a bit, weep a bit and fall into a pit of takeaway food and Netflix-bingeing before bouncing back to life in whatever form it takes when the dust has settled, and turned it, brutally and unapologetically on its head to liberating effect.
Here is a man, in lead character Tony Johnson (Gervais) who, in the wake of the death of deeply-beloved wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) to cancer, is a chaotic, emotionally-fucked up mess, flirting and acting on ideas of suicide, and unafraid to tell everyone, good and bad, what he thinksof them in uncompromisingly honest and damn near vicious fashion.
He is a trainwreck no matter how you slice it at the start of season 1 but he is an understandable, relatable trainwreck because he is, like all of us if we’re honest with ourselves, consumed by grief to the point where life as usual, and this includes social niceties, is something that no longer makes sense to him or is something with which he can even remotely come close to grappling with.
By the end of the season, he has made some progress to resuming normal operations, such as they are, but he is not miraculously, Hollywood-better nor has he had the kind of “life is worth living” epiphany that popular culture would have us believe comes to everyone sooner or later.
He is better but he is nowhere near his best and this is where season 2 picks up, again being refreshingly honest about the fact that even though the worst of grief usually, but not always, lifts from us all, its a suppression not an elimination of its life-smashing effects, and expecting anyone to suddenly be Pollyanna on post-grief steroids is unrealistic and manifestly unfair.
The temptation at this point would have been to give Tony a post-grief makeover, based on the things in his life that did change for the best in season 1.
To an extent that does happen with his unexpected friendships with sex worker Daphne (Roisin Conaty) and fellow prisoner of grief and cemetery companion Anne (Penelope Wilton) and even sweet but boundaries-less postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson) now very much a part of his life.
Work at the local, loss-making newspaper, the Tambury Gazette, continues apace too, with Tony’s decision to heed his wife’s video advice – as with season 1, Tony is still consumed with watching old videos of he and his wife, some of which were recorded as she was dying of cancer and feature hilarious but necessary social tips for her irascible husband – and be nice to people, paying dividends as he becomes, effectively, the shoulder for all other staff to cry on including paper manager brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden), journalist Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon), photographer Lenny (Tony Way) and Kath (Diane Morgan).
For all its quirkiness, and After Life has idiosyncratic characters and scenarios aplenty, there is an heartfelt authenticity to the way Tony’s rejoining of life is a one-step forward, two-to-three step back proposition.
No one wants to be unhappy forever, and Tony is all too aware of his propensity to wallow since it’s a known if miserable quantity as a blighted time in his life when very little is certain or enjoyable and knowing what you want or are even capable of is an exercise in fumbling in the dark.
That even extends to the possibility of new love.
While Tony connected with his father Ray’s (David Bradley) nursing caregiver Emma (Ashley Jensen) in the first series, a promising relationship that continues on into the second series, things don’t automatically progress from enamoured to happily-ever-after.
That’s not realistic at the best of times, anyway – sorry rom-coms which I love but that’s just the way of life in the big, bad world – but even more so when you are still trying to crawl out of an overwhelming chasm-deep hole of grief.
Tony wants to be happy, he wants to be in love again, but After Life makes it poignantly clear that what you want and what is possible when grief has you in its unrelenting grip, one which doesn’t loosen at a predictable pace, are two very different, no two days are the same and rules of linear progression simply don’t apply, things.
That is a recurrent them in After Life which admits that while the worst of the grief lifts little by little, it is not uniform, nor is it consistent and any moves towards life as you sort of knew it are not inviolable and can disappear the next time your mental or emotional health suffers a setback.
Setbacks that, by the way, don’t have to be big ones, don’t have to make sense and which run into each other in such a way that it can feel like you are never free from a sense that life will never be good again.
For all of its brutal and unflinching emotional honesty, After Life is often also a daffy, silly, goofy joy, much of it coming from the small but vital precious moments shares with Anne, Daphne, Pat and his work team, all of whom become, in ways big and small, a new, supportive family for him, bright spots, along with his faithful dog Brandy (Anti) on an otherwise often bleak horizon.
Adding quirky levity to proceedings too are the various oddbods around town that Tony and Lenny go to see, all of whom crave their fifteen minutes of fame via the Tambury Gazette and who are, by any definition, weird.
Take the man who thinks he has a noteworthy story because he has been posting his letters for a year, on account of poor eyesight, in a dog poo box in the park (it’s tall and red and so …) or a woman so addicted to cosmetic surgery that she is manifestly unable to show any and all emotion.
Yet even here, there is a pathos and humanity, such as when Tony senses that the elderly lady who claims to have a cat that is channelling her dead son and husband is desperately lonely and sad and simply wants to have their names in the paper.
It’s this core of resonant, heartfelt humanity, softening Tony’s bleaker, sometimes nastily honest moments and his temptation to take the final plunge away from life, which infuses all of the silly and serious parts of this superlative series which might be full of hard-to-face situations (especially in episode 5 when Tony gets some truly terrible news, testing his tentative steps towards happiness) and overwhelming emotions, but which feels real and true in a way few television programs, particularly those dealing with grief, do.
The second immaculately well-executed season After Life is some of the most profoundly beautiful and insightfully touching TV you are likely to see this year.
It gets grief, really gets it, understanding and articulating its messy, non-linear unpredictability, knowing all the time that though we want to be happy, that’s not always possible in the aftermath of the death of someone special and it’s okay to be who you are and where you are in the inglorious, ever-emotional interim.