For the first time, Ricky Gervais has returned to one of his TV offerings for a full, third run of episodes. Heavily influenced by the decision of John Cleese not to bring back Fawlty Towers after its second series, he has always argued the need to know when to stop, with The Office, Extras and Derek bending the two-season rule only slightly by finishing on a special. By taking After Life into this third run, Gervais finds himself in uncharted territory.
This is somewhat concerning, given that season one felt like a complete story. We met Tony (Gervais), a journalist on a free local newspaper in the fictional town of Tambury. Tony had lost his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman) to cancer, and now spent his days visiting his dementia-afflicted father (David Bradley), half-assing his work for his brother-in-law editor, Matt (Tom Basden), visiting a therapist (Paul Kaye), insulting everyone that annoyed him in any way, drinking heavily, and frequently contemplating suicide. The first run of episodes saw Tony learn the importance of kindness, come to some degree of acceptance of his situation, asking out a nurse from his father’s nursing home, Emma (Ashley Jensen). The skilful balancing of often brutal comedy, with deep emotion left the debut run just a few recycled jokes away from perfect.
Season two debuted with warning signs in place. Tony seemed to regress as a character, even more unhappy than in the early part of the previous series; his relationship with Emma was probably best left as a tease – a possibility – than have it exposed as going absolutely nowhere; the therapist character went from slightly unethical and unprofessional to a ridiculous and irritating parody of a wannabe womaniser – less Gareth Keenan, more Chris Finch – and the season spun its wheels around random plots such as staging a community show, and the threatening of the future of the newspaper. The show was saved, ultimately, by remaining mostly funny, and it finished on possibly the best five minutes Gervais has ever committed to film.
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So here we are with the third run – and possibly the least obviously suited of its creator’s properties to run this far. Three years on from the first run, Tony is no further forward. He is still drinking too heavily, meeting eccentric characters for newspaper stories, watching videos from his life with Lisa, and ridiculing anyone who doesn’t see the world the same way as he does. His relationship with Emma remains platonic. Worse, we are missing a couple of characters that really helped to humanise him. Roisin Conaty’s Roxy/Daphne character does not appear, leaving her postman boyfriend Pat (Joe Wilkinson) to complain to Tony about her being a sex worker, which might be understandable, were he not completely relaxed about it – actually positive – last time out. The lack of availability of the actress and character has driven a story change that feels forced. There is an expanded role for Brian (David Earl), who now house shares with James (Ethan Lawrence, playing step-son-to-be of Lenny – Tony Way), complete with jokes about his ex-wife that don’t work at all, and an uncomfortable amount of fat-shaming humour mined at James’ expense.
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Penelope Wilton’s Anne character returns for more navel-gazing discussion at the graveyard. She is great, but this storytelling device is becoming tiresome, and her monologue about the NHS towards the end is sickly sweet and feels pandering. With Sandeep Dhillon’s Sandy character missing this time, however, she is completely necessary as an outlet to allow us to get past Tony’s rough exterior and into his inner thoughts. She is the sole character with whom he allows his defences to drop completely. On the subject of Sandy, although a thin character, her positivity and kindness were both vital to giving Tony pause for thought about the way he looks at the world, as she finds merit in situations and people he dismisses. She is replaced this time by Coleen (Kath Hughes), a 30-year-old woman who is deeply unhappy. This unbalances the scenes at the newspaper as there is now no naivety in the room. Everything – and everyone – just feels more cynical somehow.
On a positive note, Paul Kaye’s therapist character does not appear this time, which is terrific news given his every utterance last time was teeth-grindingly awful. That is probably the sole positive when compared to season two. The biggest issue here is that there is no story. The trailer suggested a road trip to scatter the ashes of Tony’s father, but that covers a handful of scenes in total – the funniest moment of which has already been seen by anyone who has seen that trailer. The show covers a house-share, a health scare for Matt, a frustrated postman, and a relationship going absolutely nowhere. After spinning its wheels for five and a half episodes, the show then rushes to close off character arcs with sudden changes of direction. The final shot of the show is ambiguous but can be read as blind narcissism from Gervais.
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In short, After Life 3 had no real reason to exist. That it was ever made seems to speak more to the actor enjoying the process and the group of people with whom he works, rather than to scratch any artistic itch. There is a strong argument that can be made for the first season being amongst the best work of his career, but the direction of travel since then has been sharply and consistently downhill. At least it is clear enough from the story that this is now the end, merely twelve episodes too late.
After Life is out now on Netflix.