Wednesday, 14 October 2020

About sadness

For obvious reasons, I've been at home a lot more this year than might otherwise have been the case. And unlike all the worthy individuals who have used their extra time at home to get jobs done or learn new skills, I seem to have pissed most of the time away. Although since I feel like I'm always either busy or tired, have I really had so much free time? Probably not, but that's not the point I'm here to make. Because what I have done, what I have found the time for, is watch television.

First off, I rewatched all five series of Line of Duty. It's brilliant, such an accomplished and cohesive long-form body of work, and a credit to all involved. But you know that already.

I've also started rewatching Heroes, courtesy of iPlayer. It seemed groundbreaking when it started back in 2006; now, not so much. I raced through the first series, and am now remembering that the second series is where it started feeling like they were making it up as they went along. I don't know yet if I will persevere through series 3 and 4. But the first series was good. Anyway, I digress - I don't want to talk about that either.

There are two programmes I do want to talk about though. The first is Us, the recent four-part BBC adaptation of David Nicholls's novel of the same name. As you would hope/expect of a drama starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, it's very watchable. The second programme (and I appreciate that I'm a little late to the party here) is Ricky Gervais's After Life, on Netflix. Now I appreciate that Gervais can be something of a Marmite figure, but I think he can be terrific... and, whisper it quietly, I think After Life - the tale of a widower's struggle with grief and depression - might just be the best thing he's done.

So, aside from both being TV programmes that I have watched recently (still watching, in the case of After Life), why have I bracketed these two shows together? Well, they are both very sad programmes to watch, albeit in different ways. Warning: mild spoilers ahead. Us concerns the breakdown and dissolution of a 25yr relationship between straight-laced scientist Douglas and artistic free-spirit Connie, whose marriage cannot survive the adulthood and departure of their son, Albie. Now that feels terribly sad to me; okay, so divorce rates suggest it will resonate with many, perhaps regretfully, perhaps painfully. But I imagine it may be even sadder for couples or families watching who perhaps fear they are glimpsing their future. But it's sad with a BBC/bestselling twist or two, for light is left at the end of the tunnel for the protagonists, with the suggestion of new relationships for them both. Better still, in the course of the show Douglas rescues his relationship with his son. So it's a terribly sad reflection of modern life, but with an upbeat twist that enables you to watch it and still feel okay by the end of part four (unless, presumably, you are one of those viewers foreseeing their own future).

And then there's After Life. Gervais plays Tony, struggling with colossal grief after the death of his wife. To make matters worse, his father resides in a care home, where some form of cognitive failure renders him unable to recognise his son. It's a grim combination indeed (and if you've read my novel, you'll know I've explored similar themes myself - still waiting for the call from Netflix, mind). It's very different to Us - no punches are pulled and, though I still have the last episode of series two to come, there's little in the way of positive endings on display. It's hard watching in places, as Tony's grief plays out before us in high definition. He is suicidal, and we're shown that, unexpurgated. You might think that sounds unpleasant viewing, but you'd be wrong - uncomfortable, yes, but compelling. I guess everyone's experience of grief is different, but this feels plausible. Awful, but relatable.

So two very different programmes but with one thing in common - the sadness they portray, the heartache and hreatbreak, the misery ... is seductive. Gervais touches on this in After Life, with Tony observing that he was been wallowing in his grief because it's comfortable - he knows where he is with it. For him, moving on, leaving his sadness behind, is inconceivable - it has so consumed him that it has become him, and the idea of feeling okay again is scarier than remaining depressed.

Coincidence or deliberate, I wonder, that Tony's pet is a black dog?

I don't have any conclusions to end with, sorry. Just watch both programmes, they're better than their trailers. And don't wallow; that way lies disaster.


  1. I loved After Life, though I could have done without Paul Kaye's psychiatrist. That joke wore thin too quickly and I became tired of waiting for him to get his comeuppance.

    I read the book of Us when it came out and liked it very much. Haven't been able to bring myself to watch the adaptation though.

    1. Interesting point about the psychiatrist, whose character changed a lot between the start of series 1 and the middle of series 2, by which point it seemed implausible that anyone would go to see him, not least Tony's sensitive brother-in-law.

      Us is worth watching - Tom Hollander, can't go wrong!

    2. Yeah. In the first series he was outrageous but believable. Gervais pushed it too far though and he became someone who didn't fit the tone of the rest of the show. Especially without either a comeuppance or twist. Other than that, I loved the show.

      I'll try to get round to Us but the other half keeps the remote control and so far, no interest.

    3. Agree with the above re the psychiatrist. Other than that first class.
      Saw a brief snatch of Us but did not feel the urge to follow it up

    4. Us is well made, with top performances as you'd expect, given the cast. But it's like watching a car-crash, and a heart-rending car-crash at that. Not necessarily an easy watch. You want to shake Douglas, often.