Are you a ‘glass half-full’ sort of person, or more ‘glass smashed on the floor and rolling in the shards’? A ‘Mr Brightside’ or a ‘Mr Bleakside’? News At Ten or #TimsTwitterListeningParty? These are questions you need to ask yourself before deciding to load up on back-of-the-cupboard sherry and throw yourself into the second season of Ricky Gervais’s half-comedy, half-support-group-counselling show After Life. Do you feel hardy, punk?
As a piece of confrontational televisual evolution, After Life is something of a quiet tour de force. Gervais has set out to posit himself as the latest Taboobreaker General and while his stand-up shows duck, jab and occasionally go full haymaker on issues such as identity politics, AIDS and the Holocaust, his TV work has tended towards a more sympathetic exploration of mental health, disability and grief within the frame of the comedy drama. No strain of life is free from humour or should be out-of-bounds for the sensitive satirist, goes the ‘Gervais Code’, and both Derek and After Life provide moments of deeply touching pathos, even if the sentiment was often overplayed, landing bang on the 26-minute, pre-credits mark like clockwork.
In the age of corona though, when most viewers would be forgiven for turning to Netflix for an escape from their own depressing confinement into the worlds of shambolic Friday night dinners, fantasy goblin wars and meth-based tiger seduction, Gervais’s meandering widow Tony Johnson quickly becomes the worst person outside of Dominic Raab to binge three solid screen hours with.
Season one was an illuminating insight into the depths and indignities of processing grief as Tony sank from a morose, bitter and uncaring stupor into sheer hopelessness (and a spot of heroin) en route to the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. This time round there’s no such story arc; Gervais merely wanders between his increasingly inhuman cast of supporting characters – the self-sodomising cretin, the ultra-laddish psychiatrist, the contemptuous am-dram director – as a kind of comedy black hole, considering aspects of loss and failing to make any noticeable progress, the lifeless misanthrope that people still strangely want to invite to yoga classes and talent shows.
In better times After Life 2, like the first series, might have acted as a raw, moving stand-alone portrait of human pain and endurance. Right now, however, it cuts so close to the bone of the real-life losses and tragedies beginning to play out on our timelines that Gervais’ fictionalised grief becomes almost trite. We watch Tony visiting his dementia-addled father in a nursing home and can only think of those who can’t. We hear him speak in abstract tones about lingering grief and are only reminded of our own friends feeling its harshest, cruellest stings right now. There’s far too much here that draws you out of the show and back into our own troubled world – even when Joe Wilkinson’s Pat starts treating Toby’s home as his own, there’s a palpable horror at the idea of a postman coming inside.
None of this will ease as the current crisis worsens and effects more of us – coronavirus has essentially squeezed the emotional impact out of After Life. And its method of arrival doesn’t help. In many ways After Life 2 is a recommendation for the traditional form of episodic comedy release rather than Netflix’s model of mass dumping. In half hour chunks the mingling of dramatic melancholy and comedy outrage – there is no old lady here sweet enough not to drop c-bombs like a member of Fat Les, nor malfunctioning-anus gag left unprobed – would retain much of its measured poignancy. But over a three-hour binge it’s an unbalanced experience, like a Comic Relief with an 80/20 ratio of harrowing appeal video to Mamma Mia! spoof. It’s a reminder that tragedy often works best and hits hardest within comedy in short, unexpected bursts – the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, or Maude Flanders’ untimely death by t-shirt cannon in The Simpsons. As an overlying constant, it swiftly blocks out the light.
So, Ricky Gervais has unwittingly made the worst-timed series in TV history. In the light of the pandemic it’s not as difficult or enlightening to watch as he might have intended – instead real-life events have conspired to make it draining, distracting and, perhaps worst of all, unnecessary. It’s difficult to forsee a time when its subtleties and braveries will be fully appreciable; likely that’ll be a generation away, when retrospect unearths its greatness outside the context of 2020. For now, catch it early, lest events blind us all to its comedy.
‘After Life’ season two is streaming now on Netflix