Moving on is never easy, whether it’s from a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or the wildly successful first season of a television series that the public and a lot of the critics, including this one, loved.
It’s a problem that faces both After Life’s lead character Tony (Ricky Gervais) and the second season of the series itself, written and directed by the star. The first outing was a gem: bleak, yet bathed in warmth; profane and absurdly comic, but also sweet; laugh-out-loud hilarious one minute, tender, moving and heartbreaking the next.
Tony, a reporter with a freesheet newspaper in the small, picturesque, fictional village of Tambury, was a man sleepwalking through life. Crippled by grief after the death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) from breast cancer, he spent his nights simultaneously consoling/tormenting himself with old home videos.
He initially considered suicide, then resolved to live just long enough to punish the world for Lisa’s death by basically being a complete bastard who says and does whatever he wants, hurtful or not.
Despite his best attempts at self-sabotage, his outlook eventually brightened as he began to see the good in most people. It ended on a note of hope, with Tony intent on paying forward the kindness he had received from those around him.
There was even a budding romance with the lovely nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), who cares for his dementia-stricken father (David Bradley). After Life could conceivably have ended there, except Gervais dislikes pat, unrealistic romcom-style resolutions.
Season two finds Tony staying true to his vow to be a better, kinder man. He’s backsliding in other ways, though. He’s still watching those late-night videos, still drinking too much and still mired in grief – no longer drowning, maybe, but not exactly waving either.
His relationship with Emma has stalled because he still thinks of himself as married and fears falling in love with another woman (which he clearly has) would be betraying Lisa. He even admits he’s probably wallowing in self-pity.
In one way, After Life doesn’t really go anywhere for the first few of its six episodes, other than around in circles, repeating the same comedy-drama beats as before.
The most charming moments are still those between Tony and Anne (Penelope Wilton), the older widow he meets for regular chats in the cemetery. The funniest involve the bizarre characters Tony and photographer Lenny (Tony Way) encounter while covering quirky human interest stories.
These include a 50-year-old man who wants to identify as an eight-year-old girl, a plastic surgery addict and, best of all, Annette Crosbie as a foul-mouthed 100-year-old who would much rather be dead (“I might as well have been a tree”) and thinks her fellow nursing home seniors are “all c***s”.
Rather than sneering, as he once would have, Tony feels empathy for these people, especially an elderly woman whose belief that she can communicate with her late daughter’s cat he recognises as a mechanism to cope with her own grief and loneliness. It’s a lovely scene.
If After Life lacks freshness in places, Gervais makes up for it by writing some wonderful material for the other characters, including a surprisingly lovely romantic hook-up between sex worker Daphne (Roisin Conaty) and oddball Postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson).
The only scenes that fall completely flat are the therapy sessions between Tony’s brother-in-law/editor Matt (Tom Basden), whose marriage is in trouble, and the boorish, misogynistic psychiatrist (Tony Kaye). Used sparingly last time, the character was a usefully obnoxious target for Tony’s bile, but having him in every episode is a drag.
Gervais pulls everything back together with two fantastic closing episodes that are among the best he has written. He said he would consider breaking his two-seasons-and-out rule if viewers want more of After Life. They will, but maybe three should be the magic number.
After Life is now streaming on Netflix