The first series of After Life was an unusual combination of candid comedy and devastating drama. The show – which debuted March 2019 on Netflix – revolved around Ricky Gervais’ Tony, a journalist who loses the will to live following the death of his wife. Angry, bitter, and filled with loathing and self-pity, Tony decides there’s nothing to be gained from being nice, so starts speaking his mind and sharing his unfiltered thoughts with the world.
Ricky Gervais wrote, directed and starred, lending his acerbic and sometimes spiteful wit to material that was funny, but also frequently tough to watch. At times it felt like Tony – and by proxy the show – was wallowing in grief, and using his new-found ‘superpower’ to tell jokes with an unconscionably mean streak. But there were also occasions when it shed light in the darkest corners, tackling tough subjects with laughter and a dash of hope. The first season even ended on a positive note, Tony giving life another go, and even stepping out with a nurse who saw past his many foibles.
Season 2 launches 24 April on Netflix, but while continuing to find funny in unexpected places, it fails to move Tony’s story forward in any meaningful way, shape or form, the show treading water for most of its six episodes, with the result being very much more of the same.
Proceedings initially commence in promising fashion, kicking off with an upbeat montage to The Carpenter’s Top of the World as we catch up with the residents of sunny coastal town Tambury. But the good times don’t last long, with Tony still breaking down in private and raging at the world in public, like some malevolent, foul-mouthed Victor Meldrew. A potentially serious drink problem is new, as is the realisation that he might be addicted to the sadness. But dark thoughts remain, while Tony continues to watch seemingly endless videos of his dead wife; his inability to move on resulting in the character becoming imprisoned in the friend zone with Nurse Emma (Ashley Jensen).
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Elsewhere there are ups and downs for his friends and colleagues. Brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) is sleeping in the office due to a trial separation (though his personal problems remain something of a mystery), and Postman Pat is kipping in the depot thanks to a run of bad luck. Conversely photographer Lenny’s relationship with the mum of nose-recorder boy from Season 1 has gone from strength-to-strength, the pair now living together in what appears to be domestic bliss, and the musical lad now doing work experience at the paper.
Season 2 introduces new characters in the shape of a smooth-talking businessman who becomes a rival for Emma’s affections, and the head of the local am-dram society, a luvvie who is something of a camp cliché. His ‘Night of 1,000 Stars’ does give the series something to build towards as the season progresses however, with local talent taking to the stage for an episode where the humour is broad, but largely effective.
It also looks like After Life might feature some semblance of a plot early in the run, with The Tambury Gazette in danger of shutting down due to the office being sold. But that strand inevitably fizzles out, as Gervais isn’t all that interested in story. Instead, character is the ongoing concern, the show focussing on the relationships that both make and break us. And it’s something of a mixed bag regarding the connections forming all over town.
The scenes that Tony shares with widow Anne (the ever-excellent Penelope Wilton) are still deeply affecting, tackling heavy themes of loss and depression head-on, but with a feather-light touch. Similarly Tony’s developing friendship with Pat (Joe Wilkinson) is both hilarious and heart-warming, while Pat’s burgeoning relationship with sex worker Daphne (Roisin Conatay) even adds a touch of romance to the mix.
But when those inter-relationships don’t work, they really fall flat. An office crush comes out of nowhere and fails to convince. While the scenes featuring Paul Kaye’s boorish psychiatrist are once again the show’s worst. Tony has clearly chucked the therapist due to his lack of professionalism, and the programme should have done the same.
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Gervais the writer has again managed to craft a series that is both cynical and sentimental, tugging on the heartstrings with tales of woe, then undercutting that emotion with brutal barbs. While Gervais the actor has so perfected cry-acting that you still feel for his character, in spite of the fact that he sounds like a broken record.
The one-liners come thick and fast, a personal favourite being the declaration that “A man who’s tired of the anus is tired of life.” The local stories told by local people also remain a source of mirth, a standout being the 100-year-old lady who curses like a sailor. Though they sometimes appear unnecessarily cruel, encouraging viewers to laugh at rather than with some subjects, most notably when Tony interviews a woman addicted to plastic surgery, while a story that half-heartedly touches on the debate about trans rights is underdeveloped and sorely lacking in laughs.
But the overarching issue with Season 2 is that it spends too much time going over old ground, with the same arguments playing out, the same mistakes being made, and the same lessons being learned. That sense of déjà vu is most prominent during the climax, which we won’t spoil here, but which plays out in all-too-familiar fashion for those who watched the final episode of Season 1. Making the new After Life entertaining in spells, but ultimately feeling less like a continuation of Tony’s story, and more like a repeat.
After Life returns to Netflix on 24 April.