After Life review season 2: Cynical clichés and cardboard women

If you’re to believe the hordes of people recommending After Life, it is a show marrying a substantive, honest portrayal of grief, with tenderness, compassion, and wit. Ricky Gervais plays Tony, a journalist working for the local rag, who is depressed following the recent death of his wife. Whilst season 1 saw Tony lashing out at those around him, season 2 follows a path to redemption through friendship and altruism. Apparently.

I was hopeful: the best of Gervais, seen in the likes of The Office and Extras, demonstrates sharpness, subtlety and a superbly deft handling of cringe. Instead, what I found was the worst of him: Russell Brand-level vacuity dressed up as profundity, couched in a pervasive smugness and self-obsession

Let’s start with a gesture of conciliation: what I did like from After Life was the use of mundanity as a lens for viewing grief. In my own experience – of losing my father as a teenager – it is indeed generally through otherwise unremarkable, routine moments that the death of a loved one can hit home hardest. Yes, it hurts not being able to share a big achievement or milestone with that person, but it’s often when you think of a silly joke or anecdote you’d have texted to them, or when you buy their favourite chocolate bar, that you most vividly and crushingly feel their absence. This observation did sometimes come through for me, such as when Tony recounted the phone call habits of his late wife. 

The key gripe I had with After Life was the lazy portrayal of women. Even lovers of the show have commented on the one-dimensionality of Tony’s late wife, Lisa: an angel who can do no wrong. I wonder whether this realisation escaped Gervais because Lisa also had a dirty laugh, and once made a joke about a dog toy being a dildo—things that seem like desperate flails for depth of character. The superficiality of Lisa is made particularly stark in the home footage that Tony maudlinly watches on repeat. Potentially an opportunity to bring some heartwarming insight into the type of person that Lisa was, I found my eyes rolling at yet another depiction of Tony performing a ‘hilarious’ prank on his late wife. The footage was simply another chance to show us how funny Tony is—Lisa’s raucous laughter serving only as a way to confirm this. The inward-looking, self-congratulatory side to Gervais’s comedy felt particularly acute in these moments. 

Connected to her angelic disposition, Lisa also demonstrated traits of what I will call ‘woman cliché 1’ of the show: ‘the nurturer’. Generally, this is the woman who asks how you’re feeling, and will listen to you for however long you like, with no expectation that she too might get to talk about something connected to her own life. This represents the majority of women in the series. The clearest example of ‘the nurturer’ is Penelope Wilton’s character ‘Anne’. Anne acts as an unpaid counsellor to Tony, dutifully laughing at his jokes, and, like any good counsellor, doesn’t expect to get asked any questions about herself. Granted, this is a show about Tony, but couldn’t we at the very least be permitted an anecdote from Anne’s life, even if it’s solely in service of helping Tony learn something about himself? 

Stereotypes abound for the female characters more generally. ‘Woman cliché 2’ is ‘the moron’. Diane Morgan and Jo Hartley take up the mantle for this one. Morgan plays ‘Kath’, a colleague of Tony’s with a love for astrology and not getting basic jokes, whilst Hartley plays ‘June’, the generally inept mother of a fat-and-therefore-funny son. There’s also ‘Woman cliché 3’: the demure wallflower. Mandeep Dhillon plays the role of Sandy, the journalism intern. Essentially, Sandy is the inoffensive wallpaper of the office, who rebels against her status as inanimate object largely to laugh at Tony’s jokes.

Of course, there’s a good argument to be made that we shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of shit in 2020. But, as my lapping up of action films shows, with their associated disastrously drawn female characters, I’m not expecting Waller-Bridge complexity. I’d just like to point out that Ashley Jensen – the lead (alive) romantic interest in the show is literally down as ‘Nurse’ in the credits—a hilariously frank admission that personhood was not a deal-breaker for the female characters in After Life.

The friendships with these various cardboard women were heralded as Tony’s redemption; a focus on others was supposedly the thing dragging Tony from the self-centered misanthropy that his grief had spun him into. But, as exemplified by the one-sided conversations with Anne, these too ended up displaying Tony’s narcissism. Further, they created a podium for another narcissistic trait: heroism. Despite the elevation of everyday mundanity in the show, Gervais demonstrates Tony’s new-found altruism through, without wanting to give too much away, performing thoroughly unmundane valiant acts for those around him. (After single-handedly saving Sandy in one instance, Tony acknowledges his valour by literally performing the Robert Redford ‘nodding meme’ gif.)

More generally, the show can feel like an excuse for men to behave like knobs. Despite his self-absorption and cantankerous behaviour, Tony is constantly being told by various women – ‘Nurse’, Anne, Roxy the sex worker – how great he is. There’s this sense that he’s unique—unlike other men around him, he’s got depth. I think this is because these women, as well as Gervais himself, have mistaken cynicism and meanness for intelligence and wit. The message seems to be that you can offer very little – literally, in Tony’s case, promising only ‘Ground Hog Day’ to your new romantic partner – but so long as you wheel out some sarcastic banalities, you’ll be heralded as special. Whilst Russell Brand masks triviality with verbosity, then, Gervais lazily reaches for his stockpile of cynical quips. These would-be aphorisms, however, generally have as much substance as a reverse motivational poster.

Inevitably, there were bits of the show that I enjoyed. Whilst many failed, some of Gervais’s famed sarcastic one-liners and awkward pauses land well. Joe Wilkinson’s character as the eccentric Postman also offered a few funny moments. These instances, though, felt frustratingly rare. Further, the warming of my heart, which I might otherwise have fallen back on, backfired, making me nearly as disgruntled as Tony circa season one. Ultimately, whilst Tony’s journey in After Life is from cynicism to hope, this viewer unfortunately caught the train in the opposite direction.

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