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After Life season 3 review: Its greatest strength is also its biggest weakness

"Let's just carry on, and nothing changes."

After Life
Published: Friday, 14th January 2022 at 9:41 am
A star rating of 3 out of 5.

To say a fair bit has happened since the arrival of After Life’s second season back in April 2020 would be a gross understatement, but in the third and final instalment of Ricky Gervais’ black comedy, time has largely stood still.

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With the exception of a few mostly minor developments – we'll spare you specifics to preserve your enjoyment and surprise – both Tony Johnson and the sleepy town of Tambury remain unchanged. There is a mention of coronavirus, but it has no impact on the story whatsoever, which left us wondering why Gervais felt the need to mention the pandemic at all. The less said about that, the better.

For many, that lack of substantial development, particularly between seasons 2 and 3, will be a comfort rather than a disappointment; in an age where uncertainty rules, knowing what to expect, with no threat of the rug being pulled out from under you, certainly has its merits. But we were left wanting more, and those who previously argued that After Life should have been a limited series will likely double down on that assertion.

The narrative's fixed status stems from Tony who, unsurprisingly, remains utterly bereft following the death of his wife. As in the first two seasons, he continues to spend much of his time sinking bottles of wine while watching old videos of Lisa (Kerry Godliman) during her illness and in happier times, before the gloom descended.

It's an authentic depiction of grief and is undoubtedly the show's most laudable trait, with Gervais delivering a solid performance as a man who is existing, but not living. Godliman's performance feeds into that yet again, conveying Lisa's vibrant, warm and generous spirit in the scattering of moments in which she appears. You only have to spend a second in her company to understand why Tony cannot envisage a world without her.

But that central component of the show, which is so well executed, is also where it stumbles.

After Life season 3 (Netflix)

Grief adopts many different forms. Some seek out fresh distractions, tearing down their home in a bid to begin anew, aesthetically at least, or head out on a thousand-mile solo hike to cleanse the mind and gain some perspective. Tony, by contrast, sinks into a state of inertia.

If it wasn't for his friends and colleagues' pleas for him to honour Lisa's life by living his own – and the imploring gaze of his German Shepherd Brandy – he would remain glued to his sofa permanently, with videos of Lisa on a never-ending loop. But having sat through two seasons of that previously, this latest chapter feels intensely familiar to the point of tedium.

Even with the shift in Tony's worldview that occurs in the finale, that acute sadness and gargantuan sense of loss remains ever present, and further emphasises why TV shows about grief are few and far between. It's a tricky theme to navigate in a single season, let alone three, and while Gervais succeeded in making it bearable, even entertaining, in After Life's premiere, it has stalled here.

"I don't know why we can't just carry on like this?" Tony says to Emma (Ashley Jensen) in season 2. "Let's just carry on, you know, and nothing changes. Groundhog Day."

After Life doesn't quite adhere to that, but it's not far off.

After Life

And yet, what Gervais has served up tracks because it mirrors the reality of adjusting to a life that has had the heart ripped out of it. His world, once technicolour, has dimmed as he is unable to comprehend a future without the person he loves most in the world.

The very act of mourning is heavy and monotonous, and Gervais refuses to sugarcoat that, instead leaning into its permanence. As a result, After Life has become something of an endurance test, and even Penelope Wilton (Anne) isn't able to lift us with her character's more hopeful dialogue

But, that being said, it's a given that the swathes of people who have followed the series from the very beginning (100 million households, according to Netflix) will relish the show's final chapter. They are simply happy to spend time in that bubble, enjoying the many faces and their respective idiosyncrasies.

Looking ahead, Gervais is working on a new project for Netflix, although he told RadioTimes.com that if he had wanted to make a fourth season, the streamer would have left him to it. But he's chosen to move on, which is undoubtedly the right move. It is unclear where this story could possibly go next without retreading the same ground.

But while we're ready to wave goodbye to Tony, there will be millions who will mourn his departure from their lives. Gervais has his critics, but that's an unarguably impressive legacy.

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After Life is available to stream now on Netflix. For all the latest news, visit our dedicated Drama hub, or find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.

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