Still reeling from the death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) from cancer, local reporter Tony Johnson (Ricky Gervais) looks to repay the kindness the people around him have shown. Yet, as things look to be on the up, his livelihood is threatened by the potential closure of The Tambury Gazette.
Hosting this year’s Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais told the assembled throng of slightly tipsy celebrities that After Life was a show about a “man who wants to kill himself because his wife died of cancer… and it’s still more fun than this”. It’s the weird paradox of After Life: Season 1 that Gervais crafted a poignant portrait of loss, loneliness and despair while still delivering a high gag-rate. If the second go-round lacks the freshness of the first, it still balances the touching and the profane in equal measure.
With Tony finding some kind of peace at the end of Season 1, you would have thought Gervais might have written himself into a corner. And while acknowledging that recovering from grief is not an A to B narrative, there is a treading-water quality about the way the story unfolds. While there are plot cores that provide running threads — the paper is under threat when the owner (Peter Egan) decides to sell — we just follow Tony as he takes the lesson he has learned — saying and doing what he likes feels better when it’s for good — and pays it forward with his friends and colleagues: helping his brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) through a rocky patch in his marriage, setting up sex worker Roxy (Roisin Conaty) with postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson) — their first date is a delight — or helping bereaved Anne (Penelope Wilton, who finally gets off that bench) find company. The relationship with his father’s (David Bradley) carer Emma (Ashley Jensen) gets a complication with another suitor but it still feels the most under-cooked element of the show, Gervais never really showing us enough of their attraction to make us feel invested.
Yet After Life’s USP of mixing emotional directness and blunt, no-holds barred comedy remains firmly intact. Tony’s reminiscences of Lisa (Kerry Godliman, affecting even on a computer screen) remain the beating heart of the show — his regrets that he didn’t dance with her every time she asked are touching — although Gervais moves things into different emotional areas as the series progresses. Episode five is a heartbreaker.
Yet the warmth and vulnerability is offset by Gervais’ desire to push the PC comedy envelope, from Tony’s verbal vigilantism (watch him call Matt’s yogi “a snot-curdling cunt”) and am dram director Ken Otley (Colin Hoult), who claims to have been “bummed by the ghost of Liberace”, to another character (no spoilers) who embodies toxic masculinity — some of this stuff lands, some of it doesn’t. As with the first series, many of the laughs come from local-paper news stories, offering another take on the fragile absurdity of life; this time round we get a foul-mouthed 100-year-old pitched perfectly by Annette Crosbie, the woman who makes rice pudding out of breast milk, and the 50-year-old man who self-identifies as an eight-year-old girl.
Each episode cycles through similar scenes in a similar order, which might be true to lives stuck in a rut but feels repetitive (especially if you binge). But it’s a show that manages to be insightful about the addictive qualities of grief (“I know who I am with it,” offers Tony) and still maintain a big, empathetic heart — though, perhaps, like The Office and Extras, it’s best to get out while the going is good.
If lacking the first series’ narrative arc After Life Season 2 still works, its mixture of generosity, big, emotional beats and salty laughs chiming with these uncertain times.