There’s no earthly medicine, nor any amount of therapy or escape from the grief that engulfs you completely from head to toe after the demise of a loved one, especially a spouse. Someone you’ve spent more than half of your life with and expected to share the rest of your old and fragile years, sprawled under the sun with a classic and some iced-tea. Someone who becomes not just a habit but as ingrained in your mind as muscle memory - the way a writer’s fingertips move across a keyboard, gliding through without a mere thought - as necessary as breathing and as easy too.
Losing that person, (if you’re lucky enough to find them in the first place), is something I thought could not be expressed or filmed, but Ricky Gervais’ character Tony in After Life did just that.
Tony, after losing his wife whom he was married to for 25 years had forgone the will to live. He had unabashedly submitted to death and wasn’t afraid of anything that was to come his way. He didn’t think death was the hard part anymore; it was life that stung him every day. In simpler terms - he wanted to die, or at least he thought he did. After several attempts at it, he still found himself waking up each morning to a hollow life - most times for his beloved dog Brandy whom he thought he couldn’t leave alone and other times to watch the videotapes of his wife from their bygone life. His day started with the clips of Lisa (his wife) talking and laughing, and he succumbed to sleep with them too. I think dying wasn’t a part of his plan at all, or he would have done that a long time back, and we wouldn’t have a two-season-long series of After Life.
However, his pain was equivalent to the effect that made him attempt to kill himself. When the series commenced, his attitude could be described in his own words as - “Here’s what’s what: humanity is a plague. We’re a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite, and the world would be a better place without us.”
Ricky Gervais is probably the only person who can turn a macabre series about death and depression into a heartwarming and hilarious tale of love and redemption that friendship can offer. Written, directed and starred by this multi-talented actor (who also wrote the original version of The Office UK), you will find yourself on an inundating journey of emotions throughout this show. He normalises mourning, grief and depression in an unprecedented way. He tells us it’s okay to be wrought up because, “We’re all screwed up in one way or the other, that’s what makes us normal.”
Often after we lose a loved one, we’re sympathised with for a while, maybe for a couple of months, but after that, you’re expected to move on with your normal life. But is there an end-date to the grief that death taints your heart with? You can move on from a bad-hair-day or a lull in your career, but how do you fill a hole cratered by death?
Well, in my opinion, you don’t. And that is one of the reasons I fell in love with this beautiful yet realistic show. It doesn’t end with a colossal epiphany where you find that life is still beautiful and move on, back to being the person you were, because you cannot ever go back to that version of yourself that you were - in this case, what he was with his wife. That part of him might exist somewhere passively but it was put to sleep with the person who brought it out.
People aren’t whole or made up of a monolithic tenor; people are the sum of their parts. Sometimes it does so happen that you might lose an irreplaceable part of yourself, and so did Tony. But he didn’t “move on” from his wife, just because she was no more with him. Even though he knew he had lost that part of himself to her, he accepted it. They were very slow days but he got there. He learnt to live a life without forgoing Lisa. Why do we have to let go of the things and the memories left behind by the demised anyway? Tony definitely didn’t because he believes “love is everything” and that he had experienced the purest form of it; a love which won’t ever feel the same way again.
Throughout the 2 seasons, he struggles with an impertinence of character and apathy for life. Tony lives in a fictional town of Tambury and writes for the local newspaper, The Tambury Gazette. He works with his brother-in-law, opposite to him in nature, who stood by him throughout his journey of dealing with something that can be vaguely referred to as life, after Lisa. Their newspaper showcases stories of the local people and their quirky, crazy little tales- from an old man who had been posting his letters in a dog-poop box, to a 50-year-old man who identifies as an 8-year-old girl (which according to his wife was clearly a nervous breakdown). Tony hates his job, including meeting all these people and recording their inane and frothy stories. But towards the turn of Season 1, this formerly despised routine makes his life just a tad more bearable for him. He starts relating to these people, realising that they are all either lonely or going through something.
The keenness with which Gervais has worked on his characters individually is laudable. Each role brings something to the table, has a unique personality and contributes to pacifying Tony’s seething soul. Tony, who hated any social interaction, comes out of this vortex with a few special relationships. Be it the candid postman Pat (who clearly doesn’t understand boundaries), his coworker Sandy who looks up to him and shares a sweet relationship with him, his infirm father whom he visits daily or his father’s nurse Emma with whom unfolds an inexplicable relationship towards the culmination of the show.
The portrayal of his unbiased friendship with a sex worker who goes by the name of Roxy whom he met across the street unfurls into a sweet friendship, where she cares and worries for him a lot. He tells her that he sees a reflection of his wife in her; that even Lisa couldn’t go to sleep until everyone around her was okay. These little anecdotes, entwined in his memory is what keeps him going and concurrently pains him too. But these moments reinforce my faith in his undying love for his wife.
Towards the end of Season 2, Tony turns a corner and thinks that the least he can do is be a better person for the people he loves, who have constantly been there for him to rely on. He introspects as to how selfish he has been, and that life necessarily doesn’t need to be about him. If he doesn’t want to live for himself anymore, he can live for others, because “we’re not just here for ourselves”.
I think this had a lot to do with Anne, a woman he met at the graveyard, sitting at a bench close by, whom he found himself visiting everyday and sharing the tiniest, most banal parts of his day. She dressed his wounds with her kind and wise words, and a shared experience of losing her husband. She made him realise that the only way to heal is to let go of his anger for the world, that he can’t ever feel better again without being his intrinsically good self. She told him once that, “Good people do things for other people. That’s it. The end.”
If you choose to watch this show, I promise you will laugh deliriously, even whilst questioning his coal-like dark humour and cry when he cries for no reason at all when old memories come gushing to him. Even though the development of his character through the two seasons is commendable and leaves you with a sense of warmth in your heart, you will feel this show hitting you hard because of the sheer reality that it emanates even amidst a fictional setting. After all the sadness, despair and the caustic humour, at the end you will agree with the writer on one thing at least - that “hope is everything”.
I think after life should be a word attributed to the living instead of the dead, in that once people leave; it is us who grapple to make peace with the reality of it all, amongst the living, in our After Life.
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