Sometimes peoples’ emotional responses to an ongoing project can influence subsequent elements of the storyline. Take, for example, the Netflix series After Life

After Life is a British black comedy-drama created, written, produced, and directed by Ricky Gervais. On top of it, Gervais is featured in the starring role, poignantly playing Tony, a man who suffers from depression following the loss of his beloved wife to breast cancer. Tony even contemplates suicide in his darkest hours, but eventually, his resolution to punish the world for his loved one’s death charges him with a renewed sense of purpose. That is, he forms a habit of telling people exactly what he’s thinking and does whatever he pleases. In this way, the show explores some of the less-talked-about aspects of grieving. 

After Life premiered in the spring of 2019—six episodes, each just a half-hour in length. In turn, critics and audiences alike praised Gervais’ performance as he revealed a new side of his talent. And the first season is described as “life-affirming,” “masterful,” and a “must-see.”

Originally, Gervais had planned to move Tony’s grief along in a neat and tidy fashion come the second season. However, he changed his mind when he was repeatedly approached by viewers who were deeply impacted by the show. Gervais told The Hollywood Reporter in a comedy actor roundtable that he was surprised by all the emotional responses.

“I was surprised that people would come up to me, and they’d tell me their story of grief. Nearly everyone that came up to me said, ‘I lost my sister three weeks before I watched the show,’ or ‘I lost my wife last year.’ And it was amazing they would say that to a stranger because they sorta use the show as an in. And they said, ‘Oh, and I was Tony. That was me for a year.’ So that was quite a shock.”

Suddenly, the controversial comedian found himself feeling compelled to slow down and take a closer look at Tony’s character arc. He felt a responsibility to his viewers to not rush past the pain associated with loss, as doing so would not ring true to real life. And Gervais felt that moving away from Tony’s depression would minimize the suffering that those with depression often experience.

He continued, “It made me want to treat [the depictions of grief] responsibly in series two. So I didn’t make him get better, because you don’t snap out of depression. It does sort of affect you, and the things that affect you is when a real person comes up to you and tells you it affected their actual life.”

The second season of After Life premiered in April 2020. While Tony’s interactions with the world do change to a degree in the storyline, the theme of enduring grief continues.

“It’s sort of scary to have a responsibility as a comedian,” Gervais admitted, “because it’s not good. It’s not good to have a responsibility as a comedian. As a person, you do, you know, you do worry. But you can’t detach yourself from the world, as much as I’d like to.”

Struggling to find a balance between being funny and capturing the depths of despair, the comic concluded, “So you just try and make bad things funny, that’s all.”

In turn, some viewers who loved the first season had mixed reviews about the second. Gervais’ dedicated The Office fans were thrown for a loop hoping to see more lighthearted material—saying “nothing is new” and even calling it “cringeworthy.” But other reviews chimed in, saying the new batch was “awesome, delicate, and subtle.” Indeed, one man wrote, “As someone that lost my wife and best friend last year after over 30 years of marriage, I can tell you this show is a home run because it is so on-target with how a man feels after this kind of loss … It’s almost as if [Gervais] has truly experienced this loss. I’ve talked to other widows and widowers, and all agree this show is excellent at showing the rest of the world what this type of loss is like.”

Show business is a risky business. In this case, After Life has been awarded with the promise of a third season.

Do you believe filmmakers have responsibilities to their audience? Have you ever shifted your creative take on a performance out of a sense of responsibility to the viewers?  If so, why? Or do you think that in art, the filmmaker’s original vision is most important to maintain, come what may?  Please share!

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