The thing about grief, which hangs over After Life like an omnipresent dark cloud, is that it doesn’t play out the way you think it will when it’s simply an abstract concept.
In other words, when you’ve yet to lose someone.
But when that kind of life-altering, world-shattering loss strikes, you find yourself thrown into an emotional vortex so powerful, so destructive and so personal to you that all the ideas you had about the form it might take begin to look misinformed at best and horribly delusional at worst.
The fallout from this great disconnect between what you thought and what actually transpires shakes your life to its core, altering it so markedly that you seriously begin to wonder if you, or what’s left of your life, will ever feel “normal” again.
That’s exactly the position that Tony Johnson (played by Ricky Gervais, who also wrote and directed the six-episode Netflix series), feature writer for local newspaper The Tambury Gazette, finds himself when he loses his wife, best friend and soulmate to breast cancer.
We’re not privy to what Tony thought grief might look like before his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) but it’s fair bet it’s nothing like the depression and suicide-induced horror show he’s currently experiencing.
He is, to put it mildly, a terrible person to be around, throwing anger, bitterness, gloom and grinding cynicism like twisted bon mots tipped in acid, coated in poison and wrapped in barbed wire.
While he’s well aware that he is being the antichrist of grievers, he can’t pull himself out of this hellish deep dive of mourning, spending his waking hours slacking off at his job, obsessively watching old home videos and the one that Lisa specially prepared for him in her hospital room full of post-death life advice, and walking his dog Brandy aka his only reason to keep on living.
He has people looking out for him, like his boss and brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) and best friend Lenny (Tony Way), the photographer at the paper, and they are to be commended for hanging in there in the face of nasty, stinging, near-constant vitriol,but even with their daily intervention, Tony can’t conceive of a future where he is happy without Lisa.
So mired in the totality of the blitzkrieg of loss that has occurred is he that the idea that he might be able to live life without the one who defined him in all the best possible ways for 25 years is completely beyond his comprehension.
Sure he still has a witty way with words, and remains devoted to his dog and his nursing home-resident dad Ray (David Bradley), the former much more than the latter, but his life is an empty, yawning shell and the idea of abandoning it holds great appeal, a fact that he doesn’t even try to disguise.
The beauty of this most nuanced and delicate of storytelling constructions is that while it is blisteringly-realistic about how cataclysmically awful grief and loss is, it also mounts a convincing, and touchingly-funny argument for the fact that you do eventually emerge out the other side.
It’s slow going though and we witness Tony taking a step forward only to lurch six steps back, more than once.
The thing is though, and here’s where After Life is such a life-affirming joy even at its darkest moments, and there are plenty of them, not all the property of Tony, is that the show beautifully portrays how it feels to sink into the very suffocating depths of despair, and then against all your doomladen expectations, claw your way back out again.
The interesting part of this journey is that hope and salvation, such as they are, come from some very unexpected sources.
As Tony does drugs, skips works commitments and spends much of his time in the cemetery at Lisa’s grave, he comes across people who, without any intention to do so at first, end up providing him with more perspective than his “asshole” of a therapist (Paul Kaye) does in a succession of poorly-managed and hilariously ineffectual sessions.
Take his drug dealer, and the newspaper haphazard deliverer, Julian (Tim Plester), a heroin addict who is mired in the grief of losing his wife but manifestly unable to work his way free.
While Tony thinks they have a lot in common, Julian assures him that they don’t, that the fact they have lost spouses is the only real bond because Tony, despite all his suicidal talk, still has hope, still has some semblance of life.
It’s wrenchingly truthful, made all the more so by events later in the series, but it’s a small epiphany that makes Tony more willing to listen to the words of lived-wisdom that come from the likes of Julian’s friend, sex worker Roxy aka Daphne (Roison Canaty), his new co-worker Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon)m struggling with low level issues of her own, and fellow griever and widow Anne (Penelope Wilton) who he meets and bonds with at the cemetery.
None of these people provide any kind of magical, angels singing on high breakthroughs; After Life is simply not that kind of show and all the better for it.
What they do, in their own nuanced and quietly-realistic ways, is remind Tony that life is redeemable from the hellscape of grief and that imagining a life without Lisa is not some great, unthinkable sin but completely normal and totally okay.
Being a part of Tony’s journey is a sublime privilege, with After Life feeling as truthfully tangible and heartbreakingly hopeful as life itself, which it evokes in ways that will resonate with anyone who has gone down the dark, seemingly hopeless tunnel of grief.
Kudos to Gervais who is equal parts stand-up comic funny and poignantly-affecting, the very evocation of a man caught between the loss of his old life and any sense of a new one, who eventually comes out the other side, but not smoothly or absolutely, reflecting the fact that even when healing comes, it’s always and forevermore a work in progress.