Those who bristle at Ricky Gervais’ curse-laden brand of comedy might well turn off After Life season two in the first 10 minutes, when no less than three C-bombs have been dropped by an elderly woman.
The acid-tongued OAP is being interviewed on her 100th birthday by Tony – Gervais’ grief-stricken small town reporter – and she has given up on living a long time ago. It’s a bleak, darkly funny sentiment shared between subject and journalist, the latter having lost his wife and their idyllic marriage to cancer in the recent past.
The first season of After Life dealt with Tony’s grief in stark, uncompromising detail, from his frank and open contemplations of suicide to quieter, more tender moments of growth and a genuine desire to be a better person. The series was still awash with Gervais’ signature gut-punch insults and an abundance of swearing – a school bully is labelled a “tubby little ginger c***” early in the show – but its vulnerable underbelly and earnest sentiment hit big with fans, and made After Life the second most-watched title on Netflix in 2019.
For round two, Gervais doesn’t stray far from this crowd-pleasing formula, ensuring that the glacial pace of Tambury (the show’s single setting) keeps ticking along while Tony battles to get from one day to the next, the memory of Lisa (Kerry Godliman) still heavy on his mind. Rather than expanding the world of the show, he draws his central band of misfits further into it, to varying levels of success. A budding relationship between sex worker Daphne (Roisin Conaty) and Pat the postman (Joe Wilkinson) is a charming development, but Paul Kaye’s toxic psychiatrist serves as little more than a potty-mouthed pantomime villain, who holds no real relevance to the story.
A consistent delight and Tony’s most reliable source of support, Penelope Wilton is again a series highlight as widower Anne, matching Gervais’ sometimes disarmingly emotional performance as a solid, solemn presence. It’s in their shared scenes that we see the full capability of Gervais as a sophisticated non-comedic writer. There are holes to be picked in After Life, but there’s no denying Gervais’ understanding of grief and its ability to whittle a person’s quality of life down to a booze-soaked, self-loathing stump.
It’s an extraordinary feat to capture an audience this big with a show that doesn’t promise any notion of a happy ending. Maybe there’s some level of catharsis in watching a man with seemingly nothing left to lose stomping around doing what he likes. More understandable perhaps is that After Life is the best example of Gervais’ ability to find beauty in the banal without glossing over life’s more depressing moments. His body of work post-The Office has always attempted this to some degree, but After Life seems to bottle exactly what Gervais set out to do. It’s some of his most moving work to date, and if you can stomach the occasional C-bomb, his most rewarding.