Socrates sneered at grief and mourning. Such impulses got in the way of reason, or something. Not that anyone pays much attention to Socrates these days. Instead, they pay attention to crackpot cynics who seem to see grieving as an assault on civil liberties and comedy.
After Life (streams Netflix) arrived recently with its concluding third season and, man, was it divisive. From the start, the small-scale series was infuriatingly difficult to define. It is by turns outrageous, uplifting, unflinching, sad, hilarious and angry. Mostly, it’s a study of grieving by an infuriating man, Tony (Ricky Gervais). In its ending, that man made life better for those around him and walked away with his dog into the sunset.
Now, was he walking away to continue living his life – perhaps a better life, after experiencing the several stages of grief? Or was he walking away to end his own life? Not the latter, but the former, I think. Tony has spent the three seasons obsessed with old videos of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman); videos of their happy life together and videos made for him just before she died. She gives him detailed instructions about everyday things, such as feeding the dog and using the dishwasher. She also tells him not to grieve much, but get on with life and cherish the time they had together.
Tony didn’t so much grieve as he went feral-antagonistic. He sneered at and insulted everyone around him. It was all very, very funny. He even sneered at the nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), who was taking care of his father. Why would anyone bother to take care of people? Then, on one visit, she snapped at him, “You’re like a troll on Twitter. Just because you’re all upset, it means everyone else has to feel upset.” That, for some reason, helped shift him out of his narcissistic rage. Tony and Emma became good friends and came close to romance.
The third season brought a shift. Tony’s withering sarcasm continued. His group of oddball friends still felt the force of his rage but continued to be drawn to him, and support him. The thing is, for all his misanthropy, he actually had some vivid insights into people such as Matt (Tom Basden), his brother-in-law and boss, and Kath (Diane Morgan), his rather forlorn and desperate co-worker at the local paper. Kath’s journey has been one of the joys of the third season. Morgan is a true original, a comic actor of some genius. Gervais created a storyline that played to her comic instincts and he added poignancy.
It’s the poignancy of the third season that has become divisive. It is one of those situations when I feel almost every single review is wrong. The urge to belittle the poignancy and positive ending to After Life has led to the most appalling begrudgery. A lot of the negative reviews and reactions are anchored in Gervais’s strength in playing an angry, rude figure, full of ridicule for platitudes and bromides. His character’s redemption is simply implausible and ridiculous, they say.
Writing in The Telegraph in England, critic Chris Bennion described the third season as this: “Another trite, mawkish, soggy pudding of a series, that wallows in its own cynical slurry pit of emotion and thin-skinned misanthropy.” And it’s not just in Britain where Gervais has a unique status. On the U.S. site Decider, reviewer Jade Budowski advised readers, “Skip it. While there’s something undeniably charming about the world of After Life, its final season is bland and forgettable, weighed down by cliché dialogue and a muddled tone.”
Viewers tend to disagree. And it does make me wonder about the mindset of some reviewers (including my own approach). Like many viewers I didn’t find it in the least implausible that Tony mends his ways and becomes realistic about life and helping others. After all, it’s simply what his wife was telling him to do all along.
Good coming from grief is not implausible, mawkish, bland or muddled. Nor is it implausible that Gervais can shift his character’s perspective from the miseries to the joys of life’s experiences. There’s a good reason why hardly anybody pays much attention to Socrates and his views on grief these days.
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