Ricky Gervais, as an actor, director, producer, writer and stand-up comedian has done it all. From a career that limped through the 1990s but became a household name when BBC2s The Office become a hit in 2000, Gervais hasn’t looked back. Since his turn as manager-from-hell David Brent, Gervais has gone on to create a well-crafted and select niche in the market using his talent and connections in the industry.
He keeps his work minimal, never giving us too much of a good thing, and he knows when to call it a day on successful projects, be it working on podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, or making movies to break America. Following his collaboration with media giant Netflix in 2018, it opened up avenues for exclusive stand-up shows and a new American animated film, The Willoughbys that he both produced and voiced. But his most successful product from this collaboration, and some say the most successful in his career since 2001, is After Life
Returning to Netflix last Friday (April 24) with Season Two ready to binge, After Life continues the story of widower Tony (Gervais) and his struggle in day to day life after losing his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) to breast cancer. Set in and around Hampstead Heath, Tony is fueled with discontent for everyone around him. He lives alone with his pet dog, Brandy, works for a small local newspaper and has his father, Ray, living in a care home with dementia.
But regardless of his emotional barrier and negative attitude to everyone from postmen, prostitutes – sorry, sex workers – and his colleagues, the infectious attitudes and spirit of those around him slowly help Tony to see his life is worth living, and he has more to give than he thinks.
58 year old Gervais uses his developed, mature outlook for subject matters such as life and death to powerful, entertaining effect in his inimitable way. Be it arguing with a child over whether he is a pedophile or not before threatening to murder them with a hammer, walking into crystal-clear waters contemplating suicide or developing warm relationships with unlikely people, no topic was too taboo for Gervais to tackle. It’s this brave, unflinching, humorous and ultimately real look at how people cope with mental health, grief, substance abuse and love that won audiences and critics over following the first series back in May 2019.
The first episode of Season Two opens with a feel-good introduction accompanied by The Carpenters and Top Of The World where we see a new chapter in the lives of those Tony helped, and in turn helped him. A strong cast return including Tom Basden as brother-in-law Matt, Diane Morgan as Kevin Hart obsessive Kath, Ashley Jensen as care worker Emma, Joe Wilkinson as Postman Pat (not THAT one), Mandeep Dhillon as journalist Sandy, David Bradley as Ray, and Penelope Wilton as widower Anne. This talented mix of comedic and dramatic actors, old and young, are the friends and family who discover what life can be like when you stop thinking your life is over. You’ll also recognise a lot of faces from previous works such as The Office, Life On The Road and Derek, proving Gervais surrounds himself with talent he has tried and tested and understands.
Gervais continues to go for observational comedy in the everyday things. Working with colleagues we love to hate but can’t be without. Members of the community you just don’t want to make small talk with. Key workers you don’t have time for but depend on more than you know. He makes the situations relatable to all, balancing out the dark comedy and interactions with the restrained emotional thoughts and repercussions that follow. This is something Gervais excels in – using the mix of natural comedy in real situations, and then hitting you with the emotional context of what comes from it. And being set in and around such a close-knit, sun-kissed rural community, the locations are all authentic and add to that homely feel Gervais is going for.
But some over-excessive use of swear words where it’s just for comedic effect doesn’t manage to have the surprising, awkward effect hoped for. For example, when a sweet 100 year old care home resident drops about three c-bombs into a short sentence, it may be amusing for a second, but quickly loses the power that made some previous episodes in Season One so amusing. This crassness now becomes normal. Many of the gentle moments are often attempted to be diffused with a bit of rude or cringy humour, but it doesn’t always work and comes across as puerile and unnecessary. Yet, on the other hand, that use of shocking content for cathartic reasons is done well, and identifiable. Gervais, as a writer and director, has never gone for stripped down content. If it pushes boundaries, they are only his boundaries and he caters to no audience or sensitivity, bar his own professionalism – he knows when to stop, and hits hard with topics including mental health, homosexuality and abuse.
Tony is still struggling. Not to the extent we saw in series one, but we see him still reliving better times through home videos, torturing himself seeing the life he has lost and the one he has to now face alone with the help of Brandy. New demons surface in this series, such as alcoholism and the threat of unemployment, and the balance of comedy and seriousness is ever present, especially when the supporting cast get to show their colours when they come together. Some emotional plot-points you can see coming (some are very reminiscent of Derek), but it’s played out well.
When Gervais hits home with the emotion of dealing with loss, he is at his best and shows his acting talent, it’s just then often detracted again by humour. This is fine, and expected, but with a show this heartfelt now in its second run, you just wish he would have done more character acting than just dry comedy routines from his sharp script. The raw, beautiful ending of each episode hits harder than most of the previous half-hour content.
Jo Hartley and Tony Way as June and Lenny get time to expand their characters and relationship from where we left them as a new family. Also, Basden’s newspaper editor Matt is going through family troubles and again is one of the few characters we get to see take a journey and offer something worth watching for. For Tony, however, it’s the balance of accepting his situation but also using it to instill hope and confidence in others, all by opening his heart. These give some beautiful moments, but they are just frustratingly played second-fiddle to every other plot going on, and only comes to light in for a few scenes in each episode. One such moment set to Send In The Clowns during episode five reminds us what After Life is all about, away from the comedy.
A lot of the traits from Season One return here that often become predictable for the episodic structure, such as the crassly scripted therapy sessions, love/hate conversations in the office, meeting quirky members of the community and Tony and Anne being philosophical on a cemetery bench (filled with decades old observations and quotes from Gervais’s XFM radio shows). While these are still handled in a mostly solid way, they are recycled and never really break away into anything new. David Earl’s Brian, a familiar face from Derek again is running a one-trick gross comedy routine and adds nothing. Paul Kaye is also another returning character who adds little, and detracts from the quality of the show when his foul-mouthed therapist appears.
The final minute of episode six, however, is the best minute of the show and sums up everything about the entire two seasons. Powerfully acted, intensely directed and emotionally relayed. There’s just not another season left in the tank to continue expanding on this new plot point without it turning predictable.
Accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack chosen by Gervais to speak louder than words, Season Two may not live up to the gut-punch rawness and comedic grace of the first, but he pens and directs something enjoyable and tender in those real humane moments where After Life really shines, away from all the c-bombs and sex gags.
Created by: Ricky Gervais