Does grief have an expiration date?
It is the question people grieving struggle to cope with. Most often, they are not looking for an answer but the “civilised” society they inhabit want them to dig for it. The world keeps spinning, and so should we. For once, would it be okay if someone chose to grieve at their own pace and not someone else’s?
Ricky Gervais’ Tony Johnson is still not over Lisa (Kerry Godliman), his dead wife. His “relationship” with Emma (Ashley Jensen), the nurse, is at risk of falling through. He is not ready, he never was. The question is: did you expect him to have moved on? Why, because he had come to acknowledge that others around him are living in pain too? All Tony wants is a Groundhog Day situation, one where he can stay afloat in a happy place he has found comfort in (meeting his circle of friends/shrinks: the interactions with Penelope Wilton are the ones to look forward to the most), and which he can relive any number of times.
Tony still watches old videos of his wife; he is despondent, but not beyond saving. Brandy (such a good girl!), his dog, gives him a daily reminder of that. He has learnt to accommodate other people into his universe, left void by his wife’s departure. Tony is considerate… with others, but not with himself. It is the kind of plot invert from the previous time out that makes Season two of Afterlife an interesting watch.
Here is another question. If pain cannot be quantified, can it be qualified? Tony understands that having to live with cancer and die is a different kind of pain to his, and yet he still begins the day with this remark: “Another day, got to keep it together.. face the world”, although, he is now embarrassed that he went around telling people he was suffering. His days are now more bearable, he meets interesting people: a 100-year-old who does not give a hoot flipping either you or the Queen off, a lady who is addicted to cosmetic surgeries, a man who has been posting letters in a dog poop box; Tony relates with every one of them. He discovers that there is pain, loneliness and dejection all around him. And he shows empathy, even hugging an old woman who claims she could speak to her cat.
He has come to appreciate the people he has come to know, even Postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson); he even sets him up on a date. When he notices Emma may not wait around forever, his heart races. He longs for a change but he cannot, and does not yet want to come out of the hamster wheel he has been running on. And when Tony encounters another loss, he implodes yet again.
Afterlife offers a paradoxical story arc, and none more so than the series’ creator and lead star, Ricky Gervais, who embodies this. Tony Johnson is a slice cut right out of the real Gervais. He tells a colleague that there is no life after death. You are dead and gone, buried… over. Yet Tony is the actual believer here. The memories do not go away; they never do. Lisa lives on… within him, and she will for as long as Tony exists.
Society considers moving on as a sign of progress; but moving on does not mean moving over or erasing the person off your head. A tearjerker scene in episode four encapsulates this, when Tony goes: “I don’t miss doing things with Lisa. I miss doing nothing with Lisa.”
What would it take for people to understand and grant Tony his Groundhog Day? The more important question, though, is: will Ricky Gervais break his pattern and, for once, make a season three to let us know the answer to the previous question? We will wait.
Season 2 of Afterlife is now streaming on Netflix