Ricky Gervais' After Life is a Triumph for Mental Health Awareness in More Ways than One

By OneMoreLightLB - March 21, 2019

Image Rights: Netflix.

This post contains spoilers for the Netflix series "After Life" and discusses themes of suicide and drug addiction. 

If you've not seen it, then what have you been doing with your spare time?

It's the Netflix series that everyone's been talking about: Ricky Gervais' After Life.

I confess that Ricky Gervais' comedy is generally a bit hit and miss for me, but when a few friends told me how good After Life was I thought I would give it a bash, and I'm so glad that I did.

The show focuses on recently bereaved Tony (Ricky Gervais) and how losing his wife to cancer has impacted his life and his mental health. He is vocally suicidal and changes from a generally caring man to someone who is relatively hostile to those around him because he no longer sees any point in being nice - for him there are no long-term consequences anymore. Ricky Gervais' delivery is perfect; it's brutal yet poignant, heartbreaking yet hilarious. He's a man in pain and it's terrible to witness but still manages to make you laugh.

So often people in the media are scared to touch mental health in any setting other than in very serious and dramatic storylines. It's understandable - mental illness is very serious after all - but this can portray mental illness as a perpetually bleak existence, with extreme and dramatic peaks and troughs. Whilst it certainly can be that way, for many of us the majority of our experience is rather mundane. Most importantly, we have a personality and a life outside of our illness the same as anybody else.

The simple truth is that mental illness or not, we like to laugh too.

So to see a comedy centred around someone openly suicidal and to see him progress to a place where he realises his worth and the meaning of those around him is wonderful. It doesn't gloss over or glamourise any of it, but puts a wickedly witty twist on a horrific time in someone's life.

Perhaps the true triumph though lives in the portrayal of the resident "drug addict", Julian (Tim Plester).

From the moment we meet Julian, he is one thing - a drug addict. Although throughout the series we see glimpses into the fact that Julian was not always so, for us and for Tony, he is simply an addict. We hear that Julian lost his girlfriend too, and is in a similar mental state to Tony yet he is not offered the same complexity in his character, staying firmly one-dimensional in his existence. Tony is a man in pain, lost in the wake of his wife and although he dabbles in Class A drug use, he is at all times separate from Julian. Julian is not afforded the same level of sympathy or understanding in the series, as it breezes past his homelessness and bereavement.

When Tony gives him money for drugs knowing it will end in Julian's suicide by overdose, we are shocked but also...not really? Again the show moves on focusing predominantly on Tony. On Tony's recovery and progression to a better headspace. We forget the horrible things said and done by Tony because we are just happy that he has found himself again. Hurrah, we cheer for the "happy ending".

But what of Julian?

The show holds up a mirror to society in the way we cast aside and forget the homeless, the addicts, and the people we have deemed as hopeless or "other". We root for Tony but not Julian: Why? Is it because Tony is the main character or is it because we already assumed how Julian's story would end? Why do we offer forgiveness and redemption to one of the lost and grief-stricken men but not the other, and what does it say about us? Throughout the series Tony tells Julian they are alike, both bereaved and feeling hopeless, and Julian repeatedly refutes this. We think he means that Tony hasn't truly given up but he's right in another way - Tony isn't like Julian because despite his transgressions we are willing to look on him favourably and with sympathy, he hasn't yet crossed the boundary into a place we will wash our hands of him. Tony has a future and Julian doesn't. Tony has redemption and Julian doesn't. Tony has hope, and Julian has a pre-determined ending. Despite having a similar starting point, Tony's sadness and cruelty is seen as an illness, but Julian's addiction is seen as a choice.

It doesn't have to be this way, as a society we can choose to give the same sympathy and compassion to people with addictions as we do with other mental health conditions. Addiction isn't a choice but treating someone with understanding and kindness is. We can give people hope, redemption and a future, and we can extend help to the Julians of the world.

After Life puts a face to mental illness, one that isn't scary or stigmatising, and that's important. Despite some criticism I can't help but think this show is a triumph for television and for mental health awareness.

If you are struggling right now and feel like you need to talk to someone, The Samaritans can be reached at 116 123.

If you are looking for support for addiction, resources can be found here

Interested in more content related to mental health? Click here to view more posts on this blog about mental health.

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  1. I'm currently watching this and I can honestly say I am in love I love it so far.

    The representation of grief is so heartfelt.

    Wonderful review :)

  2. Keep up your work. I want to thank you for this informative post. I really appreciate sharing this great post. Thanks for sharing this great article. Great information thanks a lot for the detailed article.
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