Content warning: death, suicide
Ricky Gervais (“Scooby-Doo and Guess Who?”) is not widely known for having a big heart. He is perhaps most famous for his rant against the hypocrisy of Hollywood elites at the 2020 Golden Globes, or maybe for his scorching standup comedy, in which he mercilessly dissects touchy subjects, most notably religion. The edgy elements of Gervais’s persona are certainly on display in the third and final season of “After Life,” which he writes, directs and stars in. However, the numerous tear-jerking, emotionally devastating and heartwarming moments that accompany his blunt sense of humor are truly surprising. What’s even more puzzling is how well these features complement each other.
“After Life” season three is the culmination of Tony Johnson’s (Gervais) emotional journey following the loss of his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman, “Frayed”) to breast cancer. Throughout the series, Tony battles suicidal thoughts and struggles with finding his purpose on earth now that his soulmate is gone. His friends at his workplace, the local newspaper the Tambury Gazette, and outside the office do their best to help Tony while simultaneously striving to find happiness themselves.
In the first season, Tony’s coping strategy was to say whatever came to his mind and treat others however he wanted, because without Lisa, nothing mattered anymore. Unsurprisingly, this way of life did not make Tony feel any better, and he barely escaped suicide, thanks to the love of his dog, Brandy (Anti, “Hitmen”), and a few other friends. Over the course of season three, Tony finds a new strategy: trying to achieve contentment by making the world a better place. He gives beneficial advice to his friends and performs acts of kindness for deserving strangers without abandoning his signature fearless insults when dealing with genuine assholes.
According to Gervais himself, the overarching message of “After Life” season three is to make the most of life while you can. It is no doubt a challenge to convey such a broad and universal idea through any artistic medium, let alone a six-episode season of television. However, Gervais cleverly imbues the theme by using several tactics, including story structure, character development and humor.
The first is the subtle, slice-of-life nature of the show. Gervais does not hammer down the worldview with precise and heavily structured plotlines in which Tony might learn something new at the end of every episode. Instead, he lets the idea breathe in the natural and deep conversations between characters, in addition to spending time on seemingly mundane activities, such as walking the dog or joking around with friends. Importantly, Gervais also makes clear that living life to the fullest is not an easy task. Tony often struggles to get out of bed in the morning and can do so only after watching old home videos of his wife. Gervais is also careful to avoid preaching, keeping his message relatable with his aforementioned style of comedy.
“After Life” takes advantage of Gervais’s comedic personality to create a satisfying ending to the series in which Tony’s transformation is palpable. It is rewarding to see a character who started off the series so cynical (even willing to lose his life in order to personally ridicule two petty thieves) ultimately become a relatively selfless individual. Without spoiling too much, one of the most touching scenes in the season occurs when Tony puts aside his fervent atheist beliefs to make someone feel better in the moment.
Through “After Life,” Gervais expertly demonstrates that you never have to put limits on your creative work. Why not juxtapose gut-busting inflammatory humor with the themes of depression and the meaning of life? Who says that you can’t create a captivating show without proven structure? The show therefore serves as both an inspiration for viewers and creatives through its beautiful and innovative story.
Daily Arts Writer Aidan Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.