Dead people are weird, aren’t they? They all used to be alive, so they know the terrestrial community would dearly love to hear just one more time from their deceased loved ones. Yet throughout history, dead people have made that difficult by choosing chintzy eccentrics to be their living spokespeople, operating in odd locations and formats: tents on the periphery of fairgrounds, live gigs in shabby coastal theatres and, more recently, cheaply made television shows that never quite make it to major channels. Apparently, one of the things to fear about the afterlife is that it gives you a taste for cheesy showmen.
Their latest wheeze for getting in touch is Life After Death With Tyler Henry (Netflix), a showcase for a young American clairvoyant previously known for the series Hollywood Medium on the E! network. A self-confessed Macaulay Culkin lookalike with a sudden, blinding grin, Henry travels through the sunny southern states giving comfort to punters in need of help, like a morbid Marie Kondo or a member of the Queer Eye “fab five” with a sixth sense.
Henry brings a clean-cut sparkle to the psychic arena. Having made his name doing readings for celebrities, he is now working with folk who aren’t famous, even if he seems to attract a lot of Californians with ocean-view terraces. His main gimmick, however, is scribbling. Drawing is this medium’s medium: the visions come to him more clearly if he is doodling abstractly on paper. Clients gasp in anticipation when he opens up his trademark A4 leatherbound and whips out a rollerball.
What happens in a standard Life After Death scene will, however, be familiar to anyone who has seen clairvoyants in action before. Conversations are dominated by inexact messages that have universal application – another inexplicable quirk of the talking dead.
When people die of a sudden illness, their loved ones often think medical attention came too slowly; people with a terminal condition often have a period where they feel something indefinable is wrong; people who die young are often remembered as having been unusually full of life; death and birth often seem to arrive together. Henry’s vague suggestions of these things are taken, by desperate participants, as evidence of a specific supernatural dialogue.
Henry has an unfortunate habit of hitting on just the sort of thing that might be guessed by someone who is merely pretending to be a conduit to the spirit world. In one episode he correctly asserts that a woman’s murdered brother had been hanging around with the wrong people before his death; in another, he stuns a hip-hop producer by intuiting that someone known to him had a strong interest in sneakers. Plus, of course, we don’t know what’s been edited out, what’s been said to researchers beforehand or what information is already in the public domain.
These things matter because, despite his unassuming air, Henry is unafraid to make hard promises. A gay man is reassured that his homophobic mother has repented in the next life, while a woman whose son died by drowning is told that he doesn’t blame the companions who failed to rescue him. Even the woman whose brother was murdered, who introduces herself as actively trying to solve a criminal case, does not seem to give Henry pause.
He seems a jolly, superficially unencumbered soul, spending much of his time between sessions riding in a car with his amusingly matter-of-fact assistant Heather – who tends to respond to the arrival of fresh revelations with a non-committal “Oh”, “Yeah” or “Hmm”. Or hanging out with his mom Theresa, who’s an important figure here.. When he’s not travelling, flipping tarot cards or enjoying his purpose-built “psychomanteum chamber” (a big wooden box), Henry is accompanying Theresa on their own quest for answers, which steers Life After Death into an unexpected genealogical subplot. The Henry family have discovered, via a DNA test, that Tyler’s grandmother is not in fact Theresa’s biological mother. So who is?
Finding that out means hearing the story of a poverty-stricken mother who gave up a child, something uncovered by talking to living people about earthbound struggles. Sad, cold reality occasionally interrupts this show’s flow: in the final episode, Henry, who has already told us that he was so lonely and alienated as a gay only child that he considered suicide during his teens, reveals that his gifts first made themselves known soon after the loss of a close relative. Perhaps he, more than anyone, yearns for the dead to speak.