Tony is the Head of Features in a small and free local newspaper and, as the first scene makes clear, has lost his wife to cancer. The tone is immediately set that Tony has been crushed by the death of the love of his life. He is clinically depressed and admits that his attempts at suicide have only been foiled by the fact his dog was watching him and he knew he had to feed it.
This isn’t a show dancing around depression and grief. After Life lays bare the exhaustion of coping with mental health on a daily basis without a hint of patronisation.
Ricky Gervais is a very frustrating name to consider when deciding if to watch something. His stand-up comedy leaves me cold, and the man himself is often deeply irritating. But there is no denying that when it comes to penning TV he is extremely adept at writing slow burners that wrap around your mind. That he also directs After Life as well as writing and starring is a credit to his talent.
After Life is described as a ‘dark comedy’ but that does the show a disservice in several ways. First, it isn’t that funny. Partly because large parts of it aren’t supposed to be. But mostly because the comedy bits are more your typical Gervais fare. He writes straw ‘idiot’ characters for Tony to rally against so that these parts often feel little vignettes of the daily irritants in life.
Why can’t an adult have a child’s portion meal in a cafe? Isn’t it annoying when charity workers guilt trip you? These parts are hit and miss. Tony breaking the nose of a would-be mugger with a dog food tin? Tick! Tony having a perfect ‘atheist versus person with dumb religious arguments’ scene? Too much of the Gervais pen.
Tony admits in episode one that as he already tried to kill himself, at least he has suicide as an option to fall back on. This ‘superpower’ knowledge means he is free to say and do as he pleases, knowing that death is always an option. Again, for the comedy parts, this ends up simply puncturing the foolishness around him. But there is a lot of heartbreaking and genuine pathos in After Life.
Tony’s inability to function is a very brutal and realistic depiction of depression. And the inability of those around him to cope is also well done. When Matt, affable doormat editor of the newspaper and Tony’s brother in law, says, “I’m so tired of trying to cheer you up,” this isn’t glibly done. The show depicts the slump that depression infects in all it touches.
With such quality nuanced writing on display, it is hugely disappointing that Gervais still feels the need to fill a show about mental health with such a high level of fat jokes. Right from the get go, anyone overweight is derided as fat. As if that alone is the pinnacle of comedy writing. As if simply going ‘shut up, you fat [insert curse word of choice]’ is a joke in itself. This continues for most of the episodes to the point where you wonder if Gervais simply copy pasted the same lines of dialogue to save time. It’s wholly unnecessary and should be pulled entirely in this day and age.
After Life’s mental health anti-hero approach is not dissimilar to BoJack Horseman. But whereas the latter has to somewhat reset to keep going (with BoJack not learning anything as a result), After Life’s limited run means that Tony’s journey goes from flippant, through absolute rock bottom (taking on heroin and feeding the habit of another character), and resurfaces at a form of redemption.
That’s the key point that After Life, and Gervais, makes. The only way to truly help someone battling with mental health is to be there for them when they need you. The scenes with an older widower (Penelope Wilton) during Tony’s daily visits to his wife’s grave sparkle with heartfelt emotion. And her positive companionship convinces him to keep on going. A chance encounter with Roxy, a local and friendly sex worker, drags out a kindness from him. The threat of being banned from seeing his nephew deeply shakes him and forces him to do better. And the constant undivided love of his dog foils at least two further suicide attempts we see.
Depression and grief seclude and imprison the mind, and it takes others to unlock that dark door. That Tony’s journey in After Life can cover this with such unflinching respect is reason enough to watch the series.
Words by Michael Record