There have always been widows and widowers on TV. “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Sanford & Son,” “The Partridge Family,” “Full House,” “Arrested Development” — they’re all sitcoms whose premise involves the death of a spouse. The title of “Weeds” — on which widow Nancy Botwin sold pot to support her family — also refers to the clothes worn by a widow during the Victorian era. On rare occasions, these comedies might have referenced the late wife or husband, for a tearful moment amid the laugh riots, but for the most part, the losses had been processed before the premieres.
Dramas, too, often include the theme of losing a spouse, with the deaths of Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey” and Ned Stark on “Game of Thrones” leaving a few episodes of grieving in their wakes. “The Mentalist” and “Hell on Wheels” were both driven by single-minded widowers wreaking vengeance for the murders of their wives and children. But these large-ensemble series are about a lot more than these particular losses; the deaths are only a few dabs on the broader canvases.
A new Netflix series from Ricky Gervais, though, takes widowhood as its central subject. Called “After Life,” it joins last year’s Facebook Watch series “Sorry for Your Loss” in putting spousal grief under a microscope. On both of these shows, we don’t just pick up with the person left behind as they move forward alone; we dig into each pang of isolation and desolation they experience in the aftermath, each suicidal twinge, each flinch at the unfortunate comments made by friends. Their pain is multifaceted, prolonged, and unpredictable.
This kind of detailed emotional unpacking is perfectly suited to episodic TV, which allows a mourning character to pass through stages over time, tiny piece by tiny piece. Generally, that’s how it works in real life. We see anguished surviving spouses facing the fact that, no matter how supportive their friends and family are, they are alone. We see them realize how couple-centric their social worlds are. We see them look, to counseling impatiently, to feel better fast. And we see them deal with their difficult relationships with in-laws. In “Sorry for Your Loss,” Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh Shaw, recently widowed in LA, who has a fraught connection with her late husband’s brother. At one poignant moment, as they explore the reasons they struggle with each other, he gets painfully honest. “You can get another husband,” he tells her. “I can’t just get another brother.”
The power in these shows comes from the fact that Leigh and Ricky Gervais’s Tony need to learn to care about their lives. How do you find your way back to meaning? It’s the same idea that grounds “Russian Doll,” in a way, as Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia works through her cynicism and her depression with each new “Groundhog Day”-like life she is granted. She isn’t a widow, but her mother’s death has left her unable to form new attachments. Psychologically, she is still wearing weeds, even though her mother died when Nadia was young.
Gervais wrote, directed, and stars in the six episodes of “After Life,” which is impressive, and he has created a strong vehicle for himself. His character is a recent widower whose only pleasure comes from watching videos of his late wife. He has essentially decided that nothing matters anymore, which frees him up to say exactly what he’s thinking despite the pain it might cause — the kind of abrasive wit that, when Gervais is himself, can be funny. But Tony’s wry humor has turned sour. He insults everyone who crosses his path, particularly his co-workers at a local paper owned by his brother-in-law. He’s not just a Debbie Downer, he’s a Scrooge who throws hopeless existential observations at everyone he encounters — about the uselessness of the paper they work for, the pointlessness of dating, and the depressing life of his father, who suffers from dementia and lives in a home for the elderly.
In other words, Tony’s suffering is ugly and sadistic. He also torments himself, in ways that I will not spoil here, as he continues to get closer and closer to the bottom. One of the problems with “After Life” is that we can see the full arc of that Scrooge story line long before it arrives. The predictability doesn’t ruin the series, which can be quickly consumed in three hours. There are astute reflections of grief everywhere, as it takes its most self-absorbed form. But still, the series flirts wildly with clichés — there’s even a hooker with a heart of gold and “You’ve Got a Friend” on the soundtrack.
One of my favorite episodes of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” offers a sort of science-fictional rejoinder to “After Life” and “Sorry for Your Loss.” It’s called “Be Right Back,” and it’s about a widow who uses artificial intelligence to re-create her late husband. First there are texts from him, then phone calls with him, then, once he has been made into a synthetic robot, sex with him. She is living out the resurrection fantasy that Tony and Leigh are indulging in. But be careful what you wish for. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.