Ricky Gervais is a churlish turd. Or at least that’s the way he comes across onscreen. The British actor, director, comedian, and writer is a master at creating and playing unpleasant characters who are self-centered, sarcastic, socially awkward, or a combination of all three. From The Office to Extras to Ghost Town, Gervais knows exactly how to make viewers cringe or roll their eyes.
While he often exudes a prickly persona, Gervais’ characters have also, somewhat ironically, maintained a thoughtful, kind, and humorous quality. The most recent and best example of Gervais’ gift for making unlikable characters lovable is his portrayal of Tony in the Netflix series After Life, which has returned for its third and final season.
After Life follows the thought-provoking story of Tony, a journalist for a small-town newspaper, shortly after his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) has died. Despondent and suicidal, Tony believes there’s no longer any advantage to being kind. He feels that doing and saying whatever he wants is his “superpower.” Tony is rude to friends and strangers, drinks like a fish, and finds humans to be generally annoying. At the office for the Tambury Gazette, Tony mocks his co-workers: he makes fun of a photographer named Lenny (Tony Way) for being fat and eating too much, and advertising executive Kath (Diane Morgan) for believing in conspiracy theories. He’s perturbed by his pushy postman and the kind-hearted sex worker who often arrives at his home uninvited. Tony’s job is also a source of frustration. Of course, covering stories about a teen who can play two recorders through his nostrils, or a man who has a wallpaper stain that looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh would probably make any journalist question their career choice.
While miserable, Tony does have a few things in life that keep him tethered. There’s relationship potential with a nurse named Emma (Ashley Jensen). He meets a fellow widower named Anne (Penelope Wilson), and they bond over their shared sense of loss. Tony also takes care of his beloved dog Brandy and often uses her as an excuse to continue living.
Tony may be a curmudgeon, but like most other Gervais productions, there’s more to this character than being a stereotypical jerk. The series is a study in existentialism, addressing what makes life worth living (hint: it’s love) while also pointing out that with love can also come the pain of losing the people closest to you. Grief, depression, and guilt are felt by everyone and can derail your life. That said, it’s important to appreciate what we have while we have it.
“One day, you’ll eat your last meal, smell your last flower, hug your friend for the very last time,” says Tony in the final episode of Season 1. “You might not know it’s the last time, so that’s why you should do everything you love with passion, you know? Treasure the few years you’ve got because that’s all there is.”
After Life’s mercurial blend of humor and sadness doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does. One minute you’ll be laughing at the crazy antics of Tony’s therapist, making a fool of himself and his two mates as they come up with the most inappropriate and lewd comments you’ve ever heard (the name Michael Parkinbum will ALWAYS make me giggle). Then you’ll be crying as Tony watches a home video of his wife in happier times that perfectly exemplifies their love. This is a series that will have you alternately crying from laughter and sadness.
The first two seasons of After Life show Tony’s gradual evolution; this continues in Season 3, in which his outlook on life has improved. But he still mourns Lisa, which makes pursuing a relationship with Emma complicated.
While Tony remains the main focus, Season 3 gives the series’ colorful cast of characters a chance to shine. Kath goes on a number of disastrous dates before finding an unexpected match. Community theater director Ken (Colin Hoult) gets a hilarious multi-episode arc, and Tony’s brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) shows his competitive side in a series of silly sports challenges.
Every character in After Life is growing as a person, but Tony is still looking for a reason to live. Some might find his despair off-putting after so many episodes; most TV viewers are used to a cycle in which characters deal with pain, then move on. But the fact that Tony doesn’t gives him authenticity. Some people take years, while others never even get over heartbreak, and it makes Tony incredibly relatable.
(Editor’s Note: Light spoilers for the finale episode below).
Just when it appears Tony will never be the person he was before his wife’s death, he sees a reason for hope. A visit to a hospice stops his descent, and Tony realizes he was lucky to have the time with Lisa that he had. It also provides him with purpose. “I thought not caring was a superpower. I was wrong,” says Tony to Matt. “Caring about stuff, that’s what really matters. Kindness. Making other people feel good. That’s the real superpower, and we’ve all got it.”
At the end of the series finale, my wife and I were a bundle of tears. Being reflective is a natural consequence when watching this series. For us, it made us think of the people in our lives who are struggling and the people we’ve lost this past year. There are always a lot of texts and phone calls after an After Life binge. The show serves as a reminder to cherish those around you because everyone’s time is finite.
If Ted Lasso’s consistent optimism serves as an inspiration, Tony’s more realistic outlook serves as a catharsis. You may need a box of tissues after watching this odd collection of characters, but you’ll also feel more closely connected to humanity, an impressive feat for a TV show. After Life’s emotional impact resonates long after you’ve watched it and perfectly captures why there’s always been more to Ricky Gervais than meets the eye.
Season 3 of After Life premieres Friday, January 14. The first two seasons are currently streaming on Netflix.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not ugly crying after an After Life episode you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.