Writer/director/star Ricky Gervais admits he made up his series After Life as it went along, as he was never sure if there would be a second season, let alone a third, which is perfectly in keeping with the show’s themes of uncertainty and living in the moment. But as the third season premieres on Netflix, and Gervais has promised that season three will certainly be the last, there is an expectation of some sort of conclusion, a better sense of closure at the end of season three than there were at the ends of seasons one and two.
When we left Tony, the widower played by Gervais, at the end of season two, he seemed to have stepped off his perpetual grieving cycle for his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman), who had died of cancer, until his father passes away, which seemed to plunge him back into the darkness. But his friendship with his father’s nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), seemed to shine a light into his dark world and, at the end of season two, we see how that friendship and possibly burgeoning romance literally saves Tony from the darkness consuming him as Emma ringing his doorbell is the thing that stops Tony from swallowing a handful of pills. Despite the relief for the audience in that moment, the ending was still quite somber and ambiguous, as we were left to wonder how long Tony can hold off the demons.
As we enter season three, Gervais follows the same method he used at the beginning of season two of re-introducing us to the characters and telling us where they are now, via an opening montage set to a song. This time, it’s “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc, and, as we go around to each character, there is a much lighter and happier feel to it all, as everyone seems to be happy and settled, including Tony, who is spending a lot of time with Emma. But as the music stops and we dig a little deeper into each character’s circumstances, things aren’t as happy-go-lucky as they may seem. Everyone is struggling with a crisis of confidence, which is a far different experience than we are used to from the bumbling and naively happy gang of misfits that we have come to know. In the first two seasons, the sweet and innocent optimism of the supporting characters provided a crucial buffer for Tony’s descent into melancholia, and now it is up to him to rediscover his own sense of kindness to help others, which, in turn, just may help him.
While kindness is certainly a larger theme in season three, there is no escaping the still ever-present dominant theme of grief that looms over all, as it has the whole series. Is Tony magically over losing Lisa? Not even a little. But is he in a different place at the end of season three than he was at the end of season two? To answer that would spoil the experience of the series, which is the best part.
The magic of After Life is the fact that there are no major plot points that need to be hit, there’s no great, planned story that needs to play out, to get from point A to point B. Instead, it’s about being with these characters as they live their lives, experiencing their highs and lows, their little victories or their frustrating defeats. After Life is truly a series about life and death, but in the most mundane—and sometimes most significant—ways. Season three is not about tying up any plot points or even providing closure, it is much more reflective of life and the journey these characters take in exploring their own frailties and futures.
But if you think for a moment that Gervais has lost his edge, don’t ever forget he’s not the king of cringe comedy for nothing. Season three offers up a delicious amount of awkward and awful humor, often at the expense of these aforementioned sweet souls, but the great skill Gervais has mastered is that no matter how indelicate the joke may be, there is an inherent understanding of the truth in it and the self-awareness required to slough it off. Tony is still depressed and angry in season three, but there is an understanding that he has acquired, as he blithely notes, “Maybe I’m not grieving, maybe I’m just an a**hole.” Self-awareness has never been Tony’s problem, it’s been the resistance to allowing sorrow to swallow him whole where Tony needs help.
But Gervais knows that it is in Tony’s anger and depression where, ironically, the best comedy comes from in this series, in that juxtaposition between the clueless sweetness of the supporting characters and his tortured desire to lash out at the world. Yes, he’s an a**hole, but an absolutely hilarious one. Season three continues Tony’s indelicate dressing-down of Matt (Tom Basden), his boss/brother-in-law, where Matt finally mans up and challenges Tony to feats of physical fitness, a running gag that provides some of the biggest laughs of the series. A running gag that doesn’t work as well is exploring perpetual loser Brian’s state of mind and life, as he gets his own storyline that isn’t as effective as the performance that David Earl gives playing him. Similarly, the time we spend with wannabe actor James (Ethan Lawrence), as he navigates his frustration with his personal and professional life, isn’t as fruitful as it could be. But these low points are easily compensated for the time spent with Kath (the brilliant Diane Morgan), who finally gets some dedicated screen time as she jumps head-first into the dating scene, resulting in some of the best moments of the season, thanks to a perfectly tuned performance from Morgan, After Life’s heretofore underutilized secret weapon.
For those hoping for a return of Tom Bennett as “The Nonce,” you will be happy to know that Gervais does find a fitting way to revive this fan favorite from season two, although his appearance is far too brief. A new character in season three is Colleen, played by Kath Hughes, who plays a Tambury Gazette intern who gives Tony a run for his money at being depressed and hopeless. Tony sees himself in Colleen and sees how far he’s come and, even more substantially, how far he still has to go. Hughes is hilarious delivering her character’s matter-of-fact hopelessness, and Colleen’s journey is a nice bit of writing by Gervais, as it perhaps solidifies the series’ whole purpose.
And there is no doubt as to what After Life’s purpose is, in the end. Season three provides a perfect companion to seasons one and two, and furthers Gervais’s desire to present an honest reflection of life and death, and to how complicated a journey grief can be. Humor, pathos, kindness, understanding and melancholy are a natural part of the human experience, as is loneliness, anger and hopelessness. But, despite the sorrow and the reminders of the brutality of loss and the pain of grief, there is an underlying message of optimism, of living in the moment, of taking in the beauty and opportunities of this life.
But what is most unexpected, at least to those who may see Gervais as a misanthrope at heart, is the whole bodied embrace of humanity in this series, of the importance of kindness and the effort to communicate the brevity of life and the subsequent importance to make the most of it. Season three provides a sweet and satisfying finale to a near-perfect series that warms the heart, challenges perceptions, confronts demons and, yes, makes you laugh out loud. It is sad to see it go, but it delivered three perfect—albeit short—seasons which reminded us of Gervais’s unique vision, one that is both bittersweet and beautiful. Just like life.
The third and final six-episode season of After Life premieres globally on Netflix January 14.