They don’t make television like After Life anymore. They don’t make them much like Ricky Gervais either. This, the third and final instalment of the polarising writer/actor/comedian’s Netflix dramedy about grief is unapologetically nasty, saccharine, lovely and poignant. It’s also often a bit of a mess, a little bit like life itself.
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Much of your enjoyment of the series will hang around how you view the character who anchors the show – recently bereaved local newspaper journalist Tony Johnson. If you’re looking for a hero, Tony isn’t it. He’s often mean, a bit prejudiced, arrogant, he thinks he’s right about everything, the self-absorbed master of his own universe. And yet when the character achieves a genuine realisation – that life is brief and fragile, but worth having a good go at – it’s all the more powerful for being so. The final series wraps up with a scene as poignant as anything Gervais has put his name to before.
If there’s a criticism of Gervais’ work, it’s in his perceived world view. Perhaps fittingly for a creator so vocal about animal welfare, it often seems like he doesn’t care much for his own species. This is challenged in season three – there’s a scene in a child’s cancer unit late on which is arresting due to the moral contortion a character we thought we knew performs. However, few are the human characters who emerge from After Life covered in glory. The fictional town of Tambury is populated by those on the fringes – the postman without boundaries, the inappropriate drama teacher, the psychopath therapist – bumbling through, their flaws not disguised but exposed and dragging on the floor. And yet back to that final scene, in which Gervais looks at the chaos of life, the futility of our species lurch towards death, and still proposes that we all still deserve a shot at happiness. There’s a lot of nihilism there. There’s little spirituality or cosmic meaning in the way Gervais, through Tony, tells the stories of the town’s many misfits. The final episodes of After Life, more than any that have come before, stare into the abyss and say: ‘Shall we have a nice cup of tea?’
All of which means that After Life isn’t for everyone. Though filled with them, it’s not for those who only want to laugh. It’s not for those who are looking for a television show to make progressive points about gender or race or any of the other facets of the ‘culture wars’ that rage all around us. It’s not for those who want lightness nor grace, nor unproblematic viewing. And because of this, Gervais’ show is resolutely human. There is, after all, little as problematic as people. If you don’t like that, then the frivolity of Emily in Paris is just the click of a button away. Either way, it’s unlikely that Gervais especially cares. Like we say, they don’t make shows like After Life all that much anymore. And they don’t make them all that much like Gervais either.