Hope Is Everything
And Ricky Gervais’ “After Life” delivers a much-needed dose of it.
Life is full of surprises. You can count Netflix’s new original series, “After Life” among one of the better ones.
I do not usually write reviews. But I do write about love, grief, and mental health issues. After watching this show and being so profoundly affected by it, I just had to give it the worthy praise it deserves for so many reasons.
I am not spoiling anything by saying that the premise of the show tells the story of Ricky Gervais’ character, Tony, who has recently lost his wife to cancer and in his grief has decided that life is no longer worth living.
Anyone familiar with Ricky Gervais knows all too well his brand of snark and he delivers plenty of it here. But it is his portrayal of this flawed yet lovable character’s grief and depression that is surprising and nothing short of brilliant. We are treated to a delightful rawness and vulnerability one might not typically expect from him and it is all the more surprising and impressive when you factor in that this beautiful story about grief and hope was written by Ricky Gervais himself.
As someone who has loved ones who struggle regularly with thoughts of suicide, I was struck by how well he managed to capture not only the pain of someone fighting to find the will to live but also how he weaved in the desperation and pain of those around him who have made it their mission to convince him that life is worth living.
Where other shows gratuitously flirt with the topic of suicide and depression almost for shock value, this show does the opposite. It confronts it head-on without apology — something that those who wish to remove the stigma surrounding mental health have long been begging for. This show delivers and poignantly so.
In a society where we claim we want to talk about depression openly, “After Life” exposes our discomfort with it. Tony’s character makes no secret of his desire to commit suicide. He tells anyone and everyone who will listen and they, in turn, repeatedly ask that he not be so vocal about his desire to end his life.
Where many walk through life hiding their pain and depression, he has ripped that mask off and exposed it for all of us to see. The profound grief of his character is palpable and uncomfortable at times.
True to life, those around him do not seem to fully appreciate the pain that he is in. As many of us are guilty of doing when we do not ourselves suffer from depression, Tony’s friends, family, and co-workers just want him to be happy and struggle to understand why he cannot just choose to be.
Watching as Tony wrestles with his grief while trying to cling to life all at once, you cannot help but be struck by the exquisite irony lost on Tony that the very thing that is leaving him with no will to live, the grief from losing a loved one, is the very thing he will inflict on those he leaves behind should he end his life.
Maybe it is the writer in me looking for that deeper meaning, or perhaps it is because of my intimate relationship with the reality that I fear being one of those left behind by suicide, but I cannot help but wonder if the irony is deliberate.
Without giving anything away, the show is filled with moments that leave you aching in Tony’s pain and rejoicing in the brief encounters with happiness that creep their way into his life and leave him conflicted about giving up on it.
The show does not trivialize depression and reminds those of us who have loved ones that suffer from it that it isn’t for us to decide what someone’s level of pain is or how long one should grieve. But it also speaks to the power of love and hope and the support we can offer one another in life’s darker moments.
“We are not just here for us. We’re here for others. All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die.”
On the surface, it seems like Tony has resigned himself to the decision to die, yet in doing so he is living perhaps more than most of us. He is brutally and unapologetically honest and holds no pretenses to those around him in the classic Gervais humor that only he can truly pull off.
His heightened awareness of the preciousness of life, even in his grief, is striking and refreshing. In casting away the relationships around him in an effort to bid them farewell and distance himself, he is perhaps closer to them than ever and truly recognizing their worth, as well as his own.
The supporting characters are every bit as valuable as Gervais’ and provide some of the most meaningful moments the show offers. Mandeep Dhillon’s portrayal of Sandy, whose wide-eyed, fresh enthusiasm for life is juxtaposed against that of Tony’s despair for it, and the bond that develops between the two of them, while expected, is nevertheless enjoyable to watch.
While the show is definitely not light in nature, there are several shining moments of humor interspersed, particularly in the office scenes that depict a very realistic dynamic of interoffice relationships that, like often in real life, have a bigger impact on us than we sometimes realize.
Just like real life, this show sharply balances moments of laughter with tears. Where this show really shines are in the beautifully tender scenes in the hospital with Tony’s father (David Bradley) and his father’s nurse (Ashley Jensen), and in the cemetery with another widow, Anne (Penelope Wilton), all with whom Tony finds both comfort and much-needed insight. The cemetery scenes are so profound that I actually had to go back and re-watch them.
Anne’s perspective on life, loss, and happiness are prolific and showcase some of Gervais’ best writing of the series. Her reminder that the very thing we have lost, love, is often the very thing that can stop our pain and is where the show’s message really hits home. The layers of depth in their conversations in Episodes 4 and 5 are sensational and left me breathless as Anne’s words washed over me in a way that perhaps no other show has.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees the shade of which they know they will never sit in.”
“After Life,” in its candid portrayal of the pain of grief and death, is surprisingly full of life and is a beautifully written testament to all life has to offer — good and bad. Regardless of what has left us beaten down, this show displays the beauty in that which leaves us broken and reminds us that, despite our pain, “hope is everything.” Hope is something of which we could all use a little more. And a little dose of humor never hurts either.
Ricky Gervais and “After Life” deliver a healthy amount of both.