After Life, a six-part limited series on Netflix, follows a desperate man as he attempts to find a reason to live after the loss of his wife to cancer. Written, directed, and starring the famously acerbic Ricky Gervais, After Life gives new meaning to the term “dark comedy.” It is desperate, cruel, bleak, miserable, brutal, beautiful, hopeful, and unintentionally psalm-like.
Is it worth going through this doggedly secular, truly disturbing story in order to get to the redemptive payoff everyone knows is waiting? For some the answer is probably a quick, “No.” But for people walking through grief—or their friends and loved ones—it might hold unexpected resonance.
Gervais’ Tony, a local newspaper writer, is sleepwalking through the aftermath of the loss of his beloved. We learn that he has attempted to take his life at least once before we joined the story. We witness two more onscreen suicidal ideations, as well as attempts to numb his pain with alcohol and hard drugs. Through flashbacks (cleverly rendered with video snapshots he constantly revisits on his laptop), we see a pastiche of his once-thriving relationship with his wife and best friend, Lisa (Kerry Godliman). Lisa also prepared a video instruction guide of sorts for Tony to watch after her death. In it she implores him not to wallow, but to continue to live, to laugh, and to thrive. He watches these postmortem messages, heartbroken. This device—the toggling between the beautiful footage of Tony’s waking nightmare and the jerky, amateur videos of the vibrant life he mourns—is jarring and effective. Tony is destroyed. “If you could open a tin I’d be dead by now,” he tells his dog. We believe him.
Tony decides that since he has no reason to live, he might as well say exactly what he thinks to every person he sees and do whatever he wants whenever he wants. The first several episodes explore just how terrible a person Tony can be when decency is thrown out the window. The really strange thing about this orgy of id is how similar it is to Gervais’ own, real-world comedic brand. Tony, much like Gervais, considers his ability to say and do whatever he wants to be a sort of superpower. He’s Nihilism Man, and once he’s rendered himself odious to every last breathing soul and found someone else to take care of his dog, he can end his life. The only problem is that we can tell Tony doesn’t really believe that. Something deeper won’t leave him alone.
Another thread that connects Gervais’ real-world rants and Tony’s line of reasoning is a fervent commitment to godlessness. He works hard to remove any possibility of a hope in some kind of afterlife. In fact, Gervais goes so far as to offer a character—the paper’s sales rep—who is meant to represent those who cling to what he clearly feels is an irrational belief in God. Kath (Diane Morgan) is funny, but also a sad pastiche of empty people desperately looking for something to give their life meaning—and religion is just one of the things they happen to find. Gervais then argues against faith by skewering her mercilessly, in a transparent Straw Man technique. After Life really doesn’t want to support a spiritual or theological perspective on the meaning of life. Yet it just can’t help it.
Is it worth going through this doggedly secular, truly disturbing story?
Tony’s turn begins with a couple of stern rebukes from strong women. The first comes from the nurse (Ashley Jensen) taking care of his dementia-addled father, who rebukes him to his face after hearing one too many of his hopeless screeds. “You’re like a troll on Twitter,” she says. “Just because you’re all upset, means everyone else has to feel upset.” Later a kindly older widow he befriends in the local cemetery (Penelope Wilton) takes it a step further. “All we’ve got is each other,” she says. “We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done. No point in feeling sorry for yourself and making everyone else unhappy, too.” Though she backs him up in his atheism, calling belief in God “rubbish,” her role in Tony’s life recalls Paul’s instructions that “if anyone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” After Life’s characters may reject the proposition of religion, but they still express a hunger for Paul’s vision of Kingdom life.
Though it takes him a bit to let these seeds of truth take root, the rebukes are the beginning of the redemption of Tony’s loss. It’s not about him. It never was. The pain won’t ebb until his selfishness does. And despite his lashing out, we have seen flashes of selflessness here and there throughout his journey. He has the capacity to care for others and to see things in a way most people miss. In fact, the observational skill and wit that fuels his biting sense of humor, when channeled in other directions, gives him a degree of thoughtfulness that is truly powerful.
In John 10, while sharing a parable about the good shepherd, Jesus promises that though the thief came to kill and destroy, he came so that the sheep may have “life, and have it to the full.” A few chapters later, when Jesus is telling his disciples how they should relate to each other, he instructs them to love each other, and explains that there is no greater example of love than to lay down their lives for each other. This is one of the great counterintuitive and paradoxical truths of the gospel: that our journey is not about us. It’s not about our own agendas, our power, our recognition, or even about the arguments we can make.
Tony’s journey has to go to some really terrible places―including two choices that are downright shocking―before he realizes how close to hell he has really gotten. Although it certainly was not Gervais’ intention, in this way After Life works as a bleakly beautiful parable about the differences between selfish hedonism, empty religion, and the mystery of the gospel, in which a kind of death leads to abundant life.