Picking up an indeterminate but seemingly short time after the first run of episodes, we join Tony (Ricky Gervais) as he continues to grieve for his late wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman). Challenged by his vow to be a nicer, more helpful person, Tony continues to struggle to hold his tongue in stressful situations. Through the run of episodes he will help his brother-in-law through marital problems, help bring Roxy and the postman together, and work to keep the Tambury Examiner from being sold or liquidated.
The first season of After Life was merely a few recycled jokes away from perfect. Displaying real heart and emotion, the show balanced this with plenty of genuinely funny moments. A beautifully judged soundtrack and an attractively shot piece of work, made the fictional town of Tambury look inviting, if a little sleepy. In fact, Ricky Gervais has decent form for taking a second run of episodes in a more expansive direction: The Office saw the merger with Swindon in series two, and the younger, sharper Neil Godwin arrive as unwelcome competition to David Brent; the second run of Extras saw Andy Milman achieve fame, at the price of compromising his ideal, and creating a truly awful sitcom in “When The Whistle Blows”.
A worry at the outset of the new series was from where, exactly, the development would come this time out. As Gervais rarely goes with the pure happy ending, it seemed unlikely that we’d be treated to a love story between Tony and Emma (Ashley Jensen). In fact, Tony getting past the worst of his grief last time out, and learning that being nasty to everyone wasn’t really getting him anywhere is the end of an arc. The implication from the end of the first run was that we’d be focusing on Tony committing to kindness. What we get is only sort of that.
Tony nearly committed suicide in the first episode of After Life, stopping only because his dog distracted him. From there we saw a clear character arc of descent into ever nastier/less defensible behaviour: from insulting a child in the first episode, we saw him giving funds to a suicidal drug addict, when those means would have been better put towards helping the man. By episode five, he was threatening a primary school child with a hammer. Only the threat of being prevented from seeing his nephew began to wake him up. He finished far from happy, but ready to get on with life and start to make tentative steps (such as asking out Emma, for example).
In anything, Tony has gone backwards in season two. He looks happy in the very opening scene, as he walks his dog, but that’s about it. Where his grief was expressed previously in anger, it was also mixed with good comedy. It never stayed too maudlin for too long. Here, the character is largely unbearable. He was unvarnished before, and not always easy to root for, but he was relatable, and his pain felt real. It was designed to connect with anyone who’d ever lost anything they care about – and boy did it.
On occasion, in this second series, that connection was lost, and we’re just watching a man who is refusing to do anything to move on. The dialogue is not as sharp, and is noticeably more self-indulgent. Where scenes with the-also-widowed Anne (Penelope Wilton) were welcome last time out, as they allowed an insight into the real Tony, rather than the raging, aggressive public face he was giving to the world, here one of those meetings in particular played as self-indulgent rambling from a character who seems, periodically, to forget that anyone else in the world has any problems. Where the same character that evoked tears from the viewer last time is now becoming a self-centred bore, something is clearly not working quite as well.
At the root of a lot of this is that lack of a clear arc. Tony’s down times used to play better as they were in service of storytelling – very personal and emotional storytelling at that. With the loss of a reason for being, season two doesn’t have that same focus. Where we thought we were getting Tony helps the entire world; really, he does only about as much for people through this run as he did in episode six of the last. Although the first episode here is something of a counterpoint to the very first episode – with Tony happily feeding his dog, where he wasn’t organised enough to have dog food before, ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers replaced by ‘Top of the World’ by The Carpenters – any idea that this arc will mirror in a similar fashion is quickly shot down.
A plot is teased about the threat to close the newspaper he works for, but this is resolved quickly with one conversation with the owner (Peter Egan, who also gets a scene with Wilton, his former cast mate on Ever Decreasing Circles). The opening scenes of the first episode show us where the characters are in their lives now, hinting obliquely at a drink problem for Kath (the always excellent Diane Morgan), but this goes nowhere. There is more of an ensemble feel this time, with increased screen time for almost all of the supporting cast, in particular Roxy and the postman (Roisin Conaty and Joe Wilkinson). There is little arc though: if anything Tony is even more grief stricken that last time; finding himself as suicidal in the last episode as he was in the very first.
After Life remains an emotional piece of work, one that is also able to summon genuine laughs. The last two minutes of the series alone is a reminder of just how good – how affecting – it can be. It is also fair to say that his filmed interactions with Lisa are even more affecting this time – with present day Tony also very convincing in his pain. In its constituent parts, the standard remains high, with individual episodes being roughly of a piece, standard-wise, with what has come before (with the notable exception that any scene with Paul Kaye’s therapist in it is genuinely awful – with the character now having become a truly ridiculous caricature). As a binge watch, however, the ever deepening attachment that was formed with the character and the story last time out is, this time, replaced with a growing irritation with a character who has now run his course. Although more enjoyable than this is making it sound, it is to be hoped that, despite hints to the contrary, Ricky Gervais sticks to his two season rule, and ends the show here. Season One would be tarnished by association with too much of this.
After Life is available on Netflix.