Last year, when Netflix debuted “After Life,” a dark comedy-drama created, starring and directed by Ricky Gervais, I watched the pilot and took a pass. Too dark, too self-indulgent, too snarky for me. Sorry, Ricky.
But last week when Netflix dropped season two, I went back for a second look, mainly out of respect for Gervais. And now I love it.
What changed in the last year, me or the series? A little of both, I think. But the agent that changed me is COVID-19. And that’s what makes this series matter in a cultural sense today: It speaks like almost nothing else in popular culture to the COVID-19 moment in which we now live.
It’s coincidence, of course, because the series was conceived and both seasons were produced before the virus started killing tens of thousands of persons around the world and shredding global economies. But the themes of the Netflix series resonate with the concerns, conversations and questions many in the audience now have about death, the meaning of life and the supreme value of having someone to love for the time we are on this lonely planet.
For most of the characters in “Life After,” they only appreciate that value when looking in the rear view mirror after someone they love has died. But these are deep and profound conversations these characters are having ― conversations filled with feelings and thoughts too rarely explored on television or even in premium streamed content. Beyond the fine writing, skilled direction and superb performances by several actors besides Gervais, that subject matter is what makes this series something special even for Netflix.
The show features Gervais as Tony Johnson, a middle-aged, unambitious features writer at a very small community newspaper, The Tambury Gazette. The staff numbers fewer than 10. Tony and the editor, his brother-in-law, Matt, argue regularly about whether they are real journalists or not. Tony says they aren’t.
But career is not what appears to have ever mattered to Tony. His life was centered on his marriage to Lisa, and while she was alive, it was a great life, according to him. We learn all that via videotape replays on Tony’s laptop. Season one opens shortly after Lisa’s death from breast cancer.
I enjoyed season two so much, I went back and watched the rest of season one. And even with my newfound love of the series, I have to say the first season was pretty dark. The premise used to promote the show was that after his wife’s death, Tony didn’t give a darn about anyone or anything, and mostly wanted to die himself. So, he was going to say and do whatever he wanted and everyone else be damned. He described his new attitude as a kind of “super power.”
A typical day in season one started with Tony waking up, lying in bed and watching videos of his late wife. These sessions often ended in Tony’s tears. Then it was off to the newspaper office where Tony was regularly unpleasant and cutting to his co-workers. And every day, he would pop off to the nursing home where his father, who was suffering from dementia, lived. His father often didn’t recognize him. Did I forget the regular visits to a bench near his wife’s grave where Tony also spent some time each day?
Dark enough for you? No? How about this: One of the episodes ended with an acquaintance of Tony’s, a heroin addict, dying of an overdose on a soiled mattress in a garage. And Tony was indirectly connected to the man’s sad death.
But in going back, I can now see there were redeeming elements in all that darkness, elements that are highlighted this season and make for a more hopeful production.
As bleak as the situation at the nursing home could be, there was a ray of life and light provided by a nurse named Emma who cared for Tony’s father. She is played to perfection by Ashley Jensen, who devotees of the Gervais oeuvre will remember from her work in the HBO series “Extras."
On-screen, Jensen and Gervais seem made for each other. Her complete innocence and total culpability to his windups were pound-the-floor funny in “Extras” ― and he gave all the best laughs to her. Here the timing between the two actors is even better.
In season two, Tony comes to see what it means to truly care for and help others in the gentle and cheerful way she combs his dying father’s hair. In her innate optimism, meanwhile, she sees the angels dancing on the head of a pin. Tony definitely needs some of what Emma has, but does she need him with all his issues? That’s the stuff of romantic comedy in season two.
And then there’s the older woman Tony meets when he goes to that bench at the foot of his wife’s grave. Her name is Anne and she’s played by Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley on “Downton Abbey"). Anne is sitting there looking at the grave next to Lisa’s ― that of her dead husband’s.
The two come to share the bench and memories of their dead spouses. As their relationship grows, the older woman becomes a guide to Tony in the way mythologist Joseph Campbell described the role of Merlin in the “Arthurian Legends” or Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars.”
Wilton, who is wonderful in the role, softens and brightens each graveside encounter. My favorite moment comes when Tony arrives in the cemetery with a half empty bottle of wine and the look of someone who has hitting it pretty hard.
“You should never drink alone,” Anne says, taking the bottle out of his hand. And then after a short pause, she takes a long, hard swig herself.
Nor is it just Jensen and Wilton who elevate the series with their supporting performances. There are at least another half dozen delightfully offbeat characters in Tony’s Tambury universe ― and a dog named Brandy that keeps Tony going in his darkest moments. Talk about a guide for our wounded hero, Brandy’s right up there with Emma and Anne. Woof, woof, wake up, Tony, it’s time to feed me.
And all of it is held together by the funny and heartbreaking writing of Gervais.
Yes, the series in still dark and constantly talking about death, loss and loneliness. But it is not a meditation on death. Rather it’s an intimate exploration on how the living deal with deaths of loved ones and find the hope and strength to go on.
Everyone says, “life goes on,” and it does. But how do you go on with life after the person who made it worth living for you is gone? That’s the question at the heart of this season’s six episodes, and it will get you laughing, crying, thinking and talking about mortality and your feelings toward it in ways that will probably surprise you. It did all of that to me, anyway.
There are stories in the news almost every day now about couples discussing advance care plans, last wishes and wills ― matters they avoided discussing forever before COVID-19. On Wednesday, The Sun published a powerful piece on its op-ed page from an emergency room physician who is due to deliver her baby in two months. It talked candidly about the discussions she and her husband are now having.
“After Life” tells us we are not alone in thinking about such matters, and that discussing them with our partners is in itself an expression of love. As for the uncertainty and fear driving such discussions, nothing short of a vaccine against the virus is probably going to alleviate that. But the wry, wise humor of Ricky Gervais can make it a lot easier to endure.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.