Season one of Ricky Gervais' show about a man who had recently lost his wife to cancer entirely passed me by when it was released in 2019.
Like many probably very good shows, After Life had ended up in the 'Can't be bothered, watching re-runs of Sex In The City' basket, or the 'Don't have the emotional stability for this' basket. Maybe it was the 'Show's creator recently said something controversial on Twitter and I'm not sure if he should be cancelled' basket.
In any case, weeks spent in lockdown saw my baskets all in a jumble. I'd be forced to search for some stimulating content with all my spare time. Season two of After Life had recently been released, and there was a bit of a buzz around it, but not quite enough hype to put me off entirely - bingo.
Warning: This article talks about suicide and contains spoilers for After Life.
The show begins with Gervais' character Tony watching a home video made by his wife from her hospital bed - a suitably heartwrenching goodbye message he'll revisit throughout the series.
His cantankerous response to the unfair, early demise of the love of his life is pleasantly unpleasant to watch, at first. Tony is like a petulant teenager armed with a list of creative ways to give the middle finger to the world that wronged him, and it's Gervais at his exasperated, tetchy best.
Sure, we feel sick and sad at the thought of Tony's lonely, loveless life; but the first proper emotional gut punches tend to come in more unexpected packages.
Having waxed lyrical about how little he gives a f**k about anyone or anything, Tony proves it by coldly handing over a wad of cash to his equally depressed drug addict friend who says he would end it all if only he could afford it. I couldn't tell if it was a display of humanity or a monstrous act, but I was up at night thinking about it - unlike Tony, who slept soundly.
Tony's battle with his own suicidal urges is a slow burn. The glimmers of hope and spirals of despair weigh on the audience, offering a taste of the main character's perpetual trudge through emotional concrete.
Still, we get kind of comfortable and of course, the whole thing is frequently hilarious. Tony calls an unassuming townsperson "a c**t", takes his dog for a walk, hits a wall and contemplates ending his life. All in a day's grief. There is a point at which you wonder how they're making the mundanity of Tony's bleak life so engaging - but they are, so you carry on.
Having binged the whole lot, I wasn't sure how the series was going to end up. There had been some worrying moments of earnest that almost took the bite out of things for me, but they'd been successfully balanced by a unique take on being sad that was, at times, quite stunning.
In the final episode, having vowed to carry on living and seemingly coping with his grief, Tony finds himself overwhelmed by the loss of his wife and then this father - compounded by a failed romantic venture with his new love interest.
As Tony sits in front of his laptop listening to his wife's final words, his rising panic and desperation is hauntingly visceral. It's an intimate, stomach-churning moment shared with a man on the brink. "He should win an Emmy for that," I'll think later.
First though - I'll need to have a panic attack. As the scene reaches its climax, I feel a cold fist close around my lungs and squeeze hard - once, twice, three times - with an unrelenting aggression that makes me leap out of bed.
Big, undignified, heaving sobs echo around the dark hallway of my flat, where I stand shakily with a scrunched up tissue clutched to my wet cheek.
I'd been entirely caught off guard by the searing portrayal of a person potentially seconds from death - it was like peeking through a window you're not meant to look through.
For me, the window had been slammed quite firmly shut some years ago, after a call from a friend in the early hours of the morning. She told me 'goodbye'.
I couldn't get through to her after she hung up. I called the police but realised I didn't have her address. They stayed on the line as I frantically scrolled through months of Facebook messages to find the one time she had sent it to me when she first moved in.
When I arrived at her place, there was a police car already outside. I spent far too long parking and re-parking, making stupid, tiny, time-wasting adjustments. Having rushed there, I was avoiding going in, frightened of what I might be met with.
A police officer met me outside and told me they had got there in time, and she was okay.
We haven't talked in a long time, but it looks like she's doing great these days.
The memory of that night plays out in my mind like a blurry horror movie, but there's always been a big blank frame - the bit between our phone call and the moment I arrived at her place. I wondered endlessly about her state of mind, her demeanour, the atmosphere in the room. That moment in the final season of After Life gave me some idea.
Gervais, in his inimitable blunt fashion, had walked the riskiest of lines, and somehow pulled it off.
I'd been careful not to think about 'all of that' for quite a long time and I felt a bit resentful at Gervais' creation for giving me a big fright when I was innocently minding my own business, eating ice cream and binge-watching in bed.
This is what people must feel like after exercising really hard, I thought. Everything hurt, I felt drained. But somehow, my usually mindless Sunday night streaming marathon had forced me to stare something down.
Maybe that's what Gervais wanted - or at least, it better have been. Bastard.
Where to find help and support:
- Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
- Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
- Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
- What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
- Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
- Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email email@example.com or online chat
- Samaritans - 0800 726 666
- Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
- Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584