By Michael Hingston
It’s said that one in four Britons suffer from some kind of mental health problem. This should be shocking to the general population, but thanks to the extent to which the topic is foregrounded through the mediums of social media, television and film, it has somewhat lost its shock value. Or, at the very least, it is now seen as just a normal part of life and that we just have to try to ‘get on with it’.
This, perhaps, is why so many texts seem to focus on the perfection of a stiff upper lip, or consider which coping mechanism is most effective for those suffering in order for them to ‘be happier’ and ‘stop being sad’. But what about the times when it isn’t that easy? What about the times when the complete banality and frustration of the world just make everything worse, and there’s nothing you can do to feel happier? What alternatives are on offer to allow anyone who suffers from a mental illness to feel that they aren’t being pitied or pandered to by some halfwit writer, who knows that viewers will watch anything that offers a happy ending because it offers them an escape from their own lives and their own feelings of loss and emptiness? This is where After Life comes in.
Written and directed by English comedian and BAFTA winner Ricky Gervais, the programme, which is new to Netflix, follows the effects of utter misery and loneliness that come after losing someone or something close to you through the protagonist, Tony (Gervais), whose wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), passed away a year before the narrative takes place. Within the first few minutes of the pilot episode, the exposition is established by Lisa through a video message. Functioning almost like a message from the grave, within the message, she explains that it and further videos are to be used as a way to help Tony feel like living again after the event of her untimely death.
Despite her good intentions, however, Tony is represented throughout the first episode, and indeed the entire series, as grouchy, nihilistic, depressive and suicidal, living with the belief that he can say and do whatever he wants, and if he gets tired of it, he can always just end his life – something he coins his ‘superpower’, much to the dismay of those around him. We are shown how difficult it can be for people who feel that their entire world has fallen apart, or that their own lives are meaningless and pointless, despite the concerted efforts of those around them to offer help and support. It also explores how ideas around helping those suffering with mental illness can be flawed if they’re derived from stereotypical portrayals of the illness in question.
The series also highlights how depression and mental illness can impact different individuals differently through the character of Julian (Tim Plester), a drug addict who Tony befriends. Although Tony’s wife has been gone for close to a year when the series begins, he is still at the beginning of his spiral into depression and its effects, while Julian is who the audience can predict Tony will eventually become if he allows himself to be swallowed up by his feelings of sadness and anger.
This dedication to realism sets the programme apart from narratives which show those with mental afflictions getting better through what may look like some kind of cosmic epiphany, which would be believable only through great suspension of disbelief, such as The End of the F***ing World, in which each character’s troubled mental state seems to affect them for a single episode before they seemingly just ‘get over it’ in some daring feat of heroics or theatricality. It is equally unlike programmes in which the entire narrative focuses more on the destination than the journey, such as the controversial 13 Reasons Why. After Life, by contrast, looks more directly at how those with depression look at the world around them – after all, it is the world around them that will ultimately determine how they view themselves.
The programme left me shaken, and had me examining aspects of my own life that I hadn’t thought to examine before. As the programme progressed, I began to realise that in a situation just like Tony’s, I would probably react in an incredibly similar way, as I believe many other people would. Crucially, the programme was not disdainful towards those who suffer from these sorts of afflictions, but didn’t deify them, either. It showed them as what they are – sad and angry people who want to try to live, but have no sense of how to do so any more.
At the close of the series, I was left wishing that there had been more than just six episodes, but I suppose that that’s what the overarching message of the piece had to be – that all good things must come to an end.