Since quality feature film releases are so limited these days due to COVID-19, many amusement seekers including myself are investing their time in series watching. Two Netflix grim-reaper picks worth considering are After Life, and Dead to Me. Both have a similar premise but differ in their approach. Let’s start the discussion and find out what life lessons each has to offer.
After Life: Depicting death’s sorrowful effects in a real-life way while maintaining a high-level of entertainment is a very tall order. Especially since most of us gravitate to film as a means of escaping heartache, not immersing ourselves in it. Audiences typically do not like to be reminded that our human experience consists of worst-case scenarios and painful losses. Since grief is the most searing of all emotions, stories that focus on its rippling force rarely hit the mark. But contrary to what some viewers might initially think, After Life (a Netflix original series) manages the task in a most extraordinary way. It is so unconventionally refreshing watchers find themselves completely hooked before the end of the first episode! From the onset, this British based dark comedy-drama mesmerizes onlookers, so much so, it’s impossible not to binge watch. Like a domino effect, viewers knock down one show after another in a quest to get to the conclusion. It’s no surprise this series has now signed on for a 3rd Season.
This extremely captivating story is written, produced, and directed by comedian Ricky Gervais (of The Office UK fame) who also plays the lead character Tony Johnson, but it is nothing to laugh at. The opening scene sets the tone for the entire series with Tony’s deceased wife Lisa (Kerry Godilman) who died of cancer, conversing to her very sad husband on his laptop monitor via a videotaped interview she created as a guide on how to survive life without her. Even though this series deals with difficult subject matter do not let that scare you away. Words cannot describe just how raw and engaging this gut-wrenching journey of the grief cycle is. From shock, pain, guilt, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, reflection, loneliness, reconstruction, and acceptance – this masterpiece clearly covers all the bases in a very charming and witty way without being too morose, maudlin, or melancholy. But the most remarkable quality of this series is that viewers are not required to have lost a significant other to understand and appreciate the compelling life lessons of its storyline and how all the amazing cast of interesting characters are intertwined. As Tony (Gervais) walks audiences through every emotion associated with grief and recovery it is so enthralling to watch how his friends, family, and unexpected acquaintances act as buttresses supporting him despite his hot temper and lack of coping skills. However the most endearing performer in the bunch is Tony’s loyal dog Brandy, whose dependency on her owner saves him from himself time and time again. Dog lovers will absolutely adore how the healing power of man’s best friend is highlighted from start to finish. This probably has something to do with Gervais’ real-life efforts as a staunch advocate for dog-rescuing. Bless.
In my opinion After Life is definitely Gervais’ best work ever. Even non-fans of Ricky Gervais will love him in this role and will enjoy his cynically funny and ever so clever demeanor. So what’s the life lesson of this film sequence you ask? In fact, there are many meaningful messages that viewers will pick up with each episode. For example, the importance of caring for others is emphasized a lot in different ways, as is speaking one’s mind and the import of honestly displaying one’s feelings, as well as how lovely love is, finding hope in hopelessness, and the never-ending challenges associated with trying to move on. But the key take-away is actually in the title itself though in the reverse. Instead of ‘After Life’ think Life After…! Death of a loved one knocks us off our game, but the sad reality is life goes on. Period. This is the main message of this series and it’s truly the hardest part about losing someone special. The clock keeps ticking even when we don’t want it to, leaving those left behind struggling to find a way to wind their new existence back into the timepiece in order to travel on. Endings vs. Beginnings – ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.’ – Albert Einstein. That means no full stops until the race is finished. Let’s see if this theme continues in Season 3.
Note: this series contains a lot of swearing with some choice curse words frequently used, but it might help to know that some UK profanity is not as frowned upon as it is in North America. For example, the word ‘cunt’ in the UK equates to ‘asshole’ in NA. Also, on the topic of phraseology, this show uses a number of British expressions that NA viewers may not be familiar with (e.g. skip=dumpster, bloke=guy, bird=girl, crisps=potato chips, jumper=sweater, bender=gay…). That said, none of the foreign dialogue interferes with the brilliance of this series or with grasping the overall gist of the story. I really love this series and give it two thumbs way up. Quick trivia: Oje crossed paths with Ricky Gervais, his agent, and Canadian Actor Will Arnett in the UK while out for dinner with a friend at London’s trendy Italian Restaurant Bocconcino and all three were most polite. Bless.
Dead to Me: This series (another Netflix original) also focuses on death and grief associate with losing a loved one but unlike After Life, this time around it is wife Jen (Christina Applegate) who loses her husband, not to an illness, but in a horrific hit-and-run car/pedestrian accident. The story opens with Jen fresh in the throes of grief, with the story soon revolving around her newfound friendship with Judy (Linda Cardellini), whom she meets in the first episode at a grief counselling session. What transpires is a wild and crazy ride with lots of interesting and unforeseen twists and turns along the way. Ed Asner is also featured in a small but meaningful role, which I enjoyed. This series starts off a bit slow, but once viewers get past the first few episodes it really starts to ramp up. Though unlike After Life whose storyline is very realistic, this show has more of a Desperate Housewives feel with a few genuine moments of realism in relation to bereavement. That said, do not let that deter you from indulging in this crime/mystery dark comedy. It’s quite the tale for audiences to follow as Jen tries to recover from her loss while hunting to find the reckless driver who so heartlessly mowed down her husband, left him for dead on the side of the road, then drove off scot-free into the night. Although this series is a distant second choice compared with After Life, it’s still gratifying and worth the watch, especially during this awful COVID-19 era of endless doldrums. The show has also been re-signed for a 3rd Season, so what’s this stringed-along-saga trying to teach us?
Like the series After Life, the take-away message of Dead to Me is very similar. Fairness is illusive, death is final, and life goes on. But this series also taps into the concept of what goes around comes around, especially in relation to soul-collecting. Intervals vs. Cycles – ‘A boomerang returns back to the person who throws it.’ – Vera Nazarian. In short, karma is a bitch and speaking of bitches, there is also a lot of coarse language used throughout this series, mostly by the females. I’m not a big fan of overdone swearing but then again, nothing goes better than some dishy curse words with a side of anger spurred on by grief! ha ha
PS. On a serious note, death is a very difficult subject to tackle in film and in real-life. This is because nothing will ever rip you apart worse than the wrath of grief. It’s an exclusive club that no one wants to join, and as member I know this to be true. Losing a loved one (spouse, partner, child…) is an agony that relentlessly traps and ravages its captives. It’s hard to say what’s worse; the confusion, vulnerability, aloneness, despair, or the unforgiving depression that spirals its victims into a pit so deep that clawing a way out is nearly impossible. Grief is such a dark torturous place it stings just thinking about it. But somehow through all the pain and misery there is a supreme enlightenment that can occur once through to the other side. As awful as grief can be it also has the power to transform in the most beautiful way. But like all of life’s journey there are inevitably a few directions one can choose. Having suffered terrible grief myself, I would never wish it on anyone. Though there is one amazing outcome I am forever grateful for. It made me a better person. How you ask? Grief broke my heart into near irreparable shards, but what I didn’t expect was that in its place a bigger one would grow – a heart of immeasurable humility and kindness. Now that’s some parting gift! A final word on the topic of death, Canadians were very sad to hear of Christopher Plummer’s recent passing (age 91). As Canada’s national treasure this amazing actor had endless accolades to his credit (Emmys, Tonys, Oscar…, even a Grammy nomination) and was also awarded our country’s top honor, the Order of Canada in 1970. What a legendary icon! He will be terribly missed, but we will forever celebrate his remarkable career and remember his classic elegance, tremendous talent, and the pride he took in being a true Canadian eh!