Before I launch into the thick of my argument, I would like to first make it clear that I do not doubt Ricky Gervais’ genius as a screenwriter and comedy actor. In fact, I am a big fan of Gervais and his fantastic body of work. You may disagree with what I am about to discuss, but it’s just my two cents on one of the most hyped Netflix series’ in recent years.
When After Life first hit Netflix back in March 2019, I was just as excited as any other Gervais fan. After seeing some of the trailer footage, I could tell that it was likely to follow a similar formula to that pulled off to perfection in Derek earlier in the decade. In Derek, Gervais showed off his skills as an emotional chemist; one moment he’ll have you laughing at some of David Earl’s absurd antics, the next you’ll be wiping away tears or feeling the warmth of Derek’s simple, yet poignant messages about the deeper meaning of life.
In the first series of After Life, I was satisfied and felt that Gervais had brought his talents to yet another interesting concept and written a tear-jerking, meaningful and hilarious narrative across the six episodes. Like a lot of people, I watched all six in one sitting on a lazy Sunday afternoon and was left craving more.
After waiting just over a year to catch up with Tony Johnson and the other protagonists, I was excited to see where the plot would be taken next. Toward the end of the first series, Tony had seemingly overcome his suicidal urges and was beginning to see some worth in the world outside of his previous life, married to his beloved wife, Kerry, who had sadly succumbed to cancer. For the follow-up, I was hoping to see some significant developments in Tony’s attitude toward life and perhaps a build in momentum with his relationship with Emma (played by Ashley Jensen).
Instead, the beginning of series two seemed to have reset the score, and the narrative seemed to follow a largely similar trajectory to the first series. Tony had reverted to his cycle of self-pity, which became a little grating toward the close of the series. That said, the introduction of some new characters and some hilarious moments made the series enjoyable. Still, I do recall feeling somewhat less fulfilled with the meta-plot as little ground seemed to have been covered over the series.
Later on, in 2020, I was happy to hear that a third series was under production after completing the second series. I felt that this was why very little ground had been covered in the second series. Perhaps the satisfying conclusion was just being postponed to squeeze in a few further episodes. I had initially expected there to be only two series in total. Gervais had, until After Life, always stuck to a rule of two series’ for all of his comedy series.
Now, my real issue with After Life came in 2021 with the third series. The third instalment again brought very little new to the table, and the gently irritating aspects of the previous series’ began to rise to a less ignorable level. Where the moping self-pity and heartstring-tugging flashbacks had been necessary during the first series to communicate Tony’s situation, it now became jarring, like a broken record. Once again, very little ground was covered, and the ending wasn’t in the least bit satisfying.
In the closing scene, Tony and his dog walk off into the distance and eventually vanish. Was this supposed to demonstrate that life goes on and that not all endings in life are satisfactory, so why should the series be any different? Whatever the intention of the conclusion, it could have been conducted more effectively and definitely should have come much earlier.
So, when exactly should the series have ended and how? Well, in my opinion, Gervais shouldn’t have discarded his two series rule; it never let him down before and would have done a world of good for After Life – artistically, of course, not commercially. With a limit of two series’ to play with, the second series should have developed the main narrative more with an increased focus on Tony’s relationship with Emma.
One of the greatest aspects of the show was Tony’s realisation that there was worth in his life. Throughout the first and second series, he managed to have a profound impact, bettering the lives of those around him. This should have been the primary focus in the second series within the context of his relationship with Emma. While it would be difficult for Tony to move on romantically following his wife’s death, it would have been good to see him begin to entertain the prospect of a new relationship and bring the benefits of his companionship to Emma’s life.
As Gervais has done with some of his previous productions, he could have ended the series with an extended Christmas special episode in place of the third series. This could have been used to bring a satisfactory conclusion to the story. Perhaps a closing scene with some of Tony’s newfound friends accompanying him for Christmas dinner to show that he could manage relative happiness once again.
The story would have had a great arc had it begun in Tony’s despair and ended in a newfound familial comfort. Unfortunately, it began with his thoughts of worthlessness and depression and ended in disconcerting ambiguity.
After Life was still among the better shows on modern television, bringing laughter in abundance and some eternally essential life lessons. It has made me very happy to see a wider audience exposed to Gervais’ previous work through the exposure that Netflix gave to After Life. Through After Life’s popularity, new audiences have been introduced to Derek, a wholly underrated show that has experienced a much deserved second wind of late. I just hope people who enjoyed After Life take the time to appreciate Gervais’ previous, superior work. Next time, I hope Gervais sticks to his tried and tested two series rule.