Afterlife (Season 2) Review
Several noted writers on the matter, Nigel Kneale amongst them, have wondered if ghosts are not so much malevolent spirits but recordings of events past, a glimpse into history, if you will. Oddly enough, I have also had a glimpse into history with this second season of Afterlife, specifically the 1970s. Surely reflecting their assumption that the dreary lower- and middle-classes live in equally dreary houses, the designers of this show have assumed that every suburban semi-detached or terraced house or flat is to be decorated in the least pleasant formica, standard lamps and fleck wallpaper left over from an era when the Brotherhood Of Man were de rigueur on Top Of The Tops and brown corduroy trousers were expanded with orange patches to create vast bell-bottoms. Not to be too Colin and Justin about it but the interior decoration on Afterlife is a good deal more horrifying than anything that Alison Mundy or Robert Bridge can concoct.
This second season of Afterlife picks up only a day or two after the end of the first one. There, Alison had been haunted and then possessed by the ghost of Robert's young son and had been asked to join in a seance on the sixth anniversary of a train crash. The resulting display of possession and the supernatural shakes Robert's scepticism to the extent that he's prepared to finally prepared to believe in Alison. But rather than beginning their relationship afresh with Robert supporting Alison in her role as a medium, she's been weakened by her experience and is unable to answer the many questions that he has. Rather than bringing them closer together, the events of The 7:59 Club has left them further apart than ever.
Having enjoyed a fairly solid first season, which fleshed out the Sixth Sense-inspired dealings with the deceased with Robert's coming to terms with the death of his son, Afterlife returned to ITV last autumn, firmly placing the focus of the show on the relationship between Alison and Robert. As this season opens, what had been a close friendship is now overshadowed by the events of the seance but as it progresses, it's placed under an even greater strain, that of the presence of Alison's dead mother. What little we learned of Alison's mother from the first season was that she died young after a period suffering from a mental illness. Alison begins exhibiting odd behaviour verging on the obsessive, including her arranging the pieces of various dinner sets that she's collected over the years on her kitchen worktops. As might we all, Robert senses that all is not well and though his profession wants him to believe that her symptoms are entirely psychological, the events of The 7:59 Club have convinced him otherwise, that Alison is being possessed by the ghost of her mother.
Robert, though, has his own problem. Early in this season, he receives some shocking news, that of his suffering from an inoperable brain tumour, which leaves him only weeks to live. As each episode passes, his symptoms get worse, such that it's rather more obvious how this season ends than the first. With the added twist that the central character is a medium, Afterlife ends as the viewer, at least from a point halfway through the season, might expect but does so with a surprising amount of grace, not least when Alison sees the ghostly figure of a nurse at Robert's bedside. However, the writing is more magnanimous this time around with there being a point at which Alison is no longer in contact with the afterlife, leaving those who come to her for help needing Robert instead. A longer season, it's these twists that make it an improvement on the first.
What's also better this time around is that it's a good deal more disturbing, not least the figure of the Rat Man, the sinister voices over the baby monitor and the Night Nurse in the season's finale. Similarly, it's not afraid to add a new twist to old material, such as the sexual obsession that exists between Gemma and the spirit of her friend's attacker in Mirrorball or Lucy falling victim to the same illness that affected Jonathan's first wife in Your Hand In Mine. More than anything else in the show, moreso even than the storyline involving Alison's mother and her family's history, this is where Afterlife works best. Granted, it's not on a par with Don't Look Now nor even The Sixth Sense but there is a brooding sense of the supernatural about it, which is all the more impressive when you consider ITV scheduling this to follow up its early-evening light entertainment with. In fact, it doesn't feel like at ITV show at all, more a popular but quality BBC1 drama like Waking The Dead or Spooks, albeit at a slower pace and with less bombast. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell if Afterlife will return later this year given how this season ends. Having approached this one with an attitude of casual interest, it would be fascinating to see where it goes from this point on. Unfortunately, with ITV now putting comedy at the heart of Saturday night - the odd uncomfortable laugh at Alison's choice of clothes apart, this offers precious few laughs - the future, in this life or otherwise, looks bleak for Afterlife.
Roadside Bouquets: After the séance that ended the first season of the show, Alison Mundy is still troubled by what happened, as is Robert, who finds his scepticism shaken by what he'd seen. Neither has come to terms with what they'd seen happen but, more than anything, find that they need one another, Robert more than Alison who comes to her to ask her help in understanding the afterlife. But soon the spirits have caught up with her once again when she sees the ghost of a young woman standing at the side of a road. Meeting with the friends of the young woman, Alison learns that they were also in the same crash but that she was the only one who was fatally injured. And yet the three of them are also haunted by her. When they discover that Alison has a means to communicate with the dead, they ask her to find out why her spirit will not rest in peace.
The Rat Man: The prison service, no stranger to violence nor suicides, is shocked when a greater number of deaths than usual occur behind bars. Visiting the prison, Alison and Robert meet the repulsive serial killer Ian Garland (David Threlfall) who claims that he is visited by a supernatural presence, the Rat Man (Robin Samson), who Garland claims urges him on to kill and who is the cause of the deaths in the prison. But is Garland so disconnected from the Rat Man or is the evil spirit at one with the killer?
Lullaby: Martin (Aidan McArdle), the father of a newborn baby, has just put his child to bed when he hears a voice of a strange man on the baby monitor, one that is singing his child to sleep. Running back upstairs, he sees nothing unusual in the room but continues to hear the voice. With little support from his wife – Martin is a stay-at-home father and is alone for most of the time with his child – he contacts Alison and asks for her help. But then the voice on the monitor grows louder and more threatening, telling the baby that Martin isn't good enough and that he must come with Daddy. Alison, though, is troubled with a spirit within her own home, that of her mother, who Robert fears is dominating Alison in death as she did in life. Then Robert receives some shocking news of his own.
Your Hand In Mine: Jonathan (Liam Cunningham) and Lucy (Julie Graham) are a happily married couple – good-looking, rich and successful, much would seem to be going their way – but when Lucy begins to suffer from a strange skin condition, Jonathan recognises it as the one that caused the death of his first wife. Hoping that he can hold on to Lucy, Jonathan asks Alison for help, who believes that Lucy is being taken over by the spirit of Jonathan’s first wife. But Alison comes and goes, sometimes herself and sometimes possessed by the spirit of her mother. Unfortunately, now that she needs him, Robert isn't around to help
Mirrorball: A young woman called Gemma (Natalia Tena) comes to Alison and asks for her help in laying to rest the spirit of her friend Beth (Matti Houghton). However, what troubles Alison is that Gemma describes Beth as being murdered by a ghost, who then begins to make contact with Gemma before stalking her and haunting her flat. Alison tries to help but Gemma begins to develop a powerfully sexual relationship with the ghost of Beth’s attacker, leaving Alison thinking that Gemma knows much more about this spirit and about Beth’s murder than she first said. Alison also needs help but Robert finds that at any mention of her mother, she shuts him out. He finds, much to his shock, that Alison almost seems to be giving in.
Mind The Bugs Don't Bite: Alison is now almost entirely possessed by the spirit of her mother, showing all of the signs of the madness that her own mother suffered from before her death. In looking into Alison’s family, Robert finds that Alison began seeing the spirits only after her mother’s death. Believing that there are secrets within Alison’s family that might explain what is happening, he tracks down her father, Stan (Kenneth Cranham) and brings him together with Alison. Eventually, the truth about the death of her mother is revealed.
Things Forgotten: Harry (Gregory Foreman), a sixteen-year-old boy, claims to be haunted by the spirit of a little boy who’s only ever seen wearing a mask (Michael Press). His parents try to help him by calling in a psychic, Jennifer (Claire Rushbrook), but Harry quickly reveals her to be a fraud. Soon after, Alison visits and also sees Jennifer as not being genuine but now free from the spirit of her mother, Alison cannot see the spirit either. In fact, she can't see anything of the spirit world at all. But then Robert, with his background in psychology, believes that he can help Harry, finding some meaning behind the haunting. Unfortunately, though, Robert is becoming increasingly ill, something that Alison doesn't know anything about. Until, that is, she has a shocking vision.
A Name Written In Water: Alison is trying to contact Robert but cannot find him anywhere. Rushing to the hospital, she finds him already in a coma. There, she is told that Robert has been suffering from a brain tumour, which has already been diagnosed as being terminal. But it is at the hospital that Alison sees the ghostly figure of a nurse standing by the ends of the patients’ beds. Asking the nursing staff about this figure, she is apparently well known, there to help dying patients pass over in the afterlife. As Robert’s condition worsens, Alison sees the spirit of the nurse pass to the end of his bed…
As with the first season of Afterlife, this looks, on this release on DVD, much like it did when shown on satellite or terrestrial digital television - anamorphically presented in 1.78:1 with an acceptable amount of detail, sharpness and colour. However, the picture is a slight improvement over its original broadcast and in offering only three episodes per disc - the third disc comes with an episode-length Behind The Scenes - the series doesn't push the storage limitations of the hardware. Hence, there being much less noise in the picture and a richer, more pleasing use of colour, albeit, as per the opening paragraph, much more brown, grey and orange. Similarly, the soundtrack is also an improvement over the original with the dialogue sounding less muddled and, in using the rear channels to separate out ambient effects, much more open. Slight though this is, Afterlife is the kind of show that demands good use of silence and in the manner in which the DVD has been produced, gets it.
Behind The Scenes (45m29s): This second season DVD comes with a very complete making-of and though it begins with footage from the show's first season, soon goes on to interview the cast, the guest stars, including David Threlfall, and creator Stephen Volk on what this year's season brings us and the manner in which he's moved on the story. There are many highlights taken from the show and Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp, who are interviewed together, clearly enjoyed the experience. Volk also talks about the origins of the show and his struggle to get it commissioned and, in a nice touch, medium Gordon Smith comes along to talk about the similarities between what Alison does and his own stagecraft/communication with the dead.
It may have been that the decisions taken in the dressing of the Afterlife sets were deliberate ones but it leaves the show looking shabby at times. Unfortunately, that tends towards covering up the relationship between Alison and Robert, which is, perhaps in spite of the supernatural tendencies of the show, one of the more believable ones in recent television times. Certainly, Robert Bridge is one of the best parts that Andrew Lincoln has been offered since the original This Life but what's also clear is that it's a much better part than the ten-years-on Egg of the recent Christmas reunion. Following this series might be difficult - there is an obvious route the makers could take á la Marty Hopkirk but one hopes they avoid that - but it wouldn't appear as though Stephen Volk has run out of stories just yet.