Following a moderately successful pilot episode last year, Ricky Gervais’s care home comedy-drama Derek has begun its first full run on Channel 4. The show has split opinion (much like Gervais does himself) – some love it, some absolutely despise it. Thankfully, I fall into the former camp.
ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE?
I think people’s main problem with Derek is that when you see Ricky Gervais, you immediately think of David Brent or Andy Millman, so to see him play Derek – someone so different to those characters – doesn’t seem right in a way.
I must admit that, love it as I do, I do sometimes see scenes in Derek as a little self-indulgent on Gervais’s part. Also, there are stark similarities to what is arguably his biggest success: The Office. With the shaky camera, talking heads and naturalistic dialogue, you can see why many may see Derek as Gervais’s attempt to take some of the magic from Wernham Hogg and sprinkle it over Broad Hill retirement home – only without his long-term collaborator Stephen Merchant in tow. I mean, come on: Derek even does the clueless and slightly ironic looks to camera which have for so long been synonymous with Slough’s most self-deprecating sales rep, Tim.
Then again, are those really criticisms of Derek? Brilliant as those characters are, would we want to see Ricky Gervais spend the rest of his career being type-casted as socially awkward, deluded protagonists? Can we really blame him for creating a character which is in such contrast to those previously mentioned, just so that he can lessen his chances of venturing outside, plagued by incessant screeches of ‘Is he ‘aving a laugh?’? No!
Plus, is there truly anything wrong with Derek bearing resemblance to the double Golden Globe-winning, Emmy-nominated The Office? The advice for writers is invariably ‘stick to what you know’. Renowned formats are what Gervais knows, and are what Gervais is clearly sticking to.
People are always going to criticise, no matter what. I once heard a story of a teacher saving a naturally grateful pupil from choking by performing the Heimlich Manoeuvre, but in the process cracking the boy’s ribs. On having this story recounted to him, one of my friends said, ‘My God! You cracked his ribs? I wouldn’t have thanked you!’. People, as I said, will always criticise – and so it is with Derek, Ricky Gervais and comedy in general. However, I fail to understand how anyone can deny the absolute sublime brilliance of this piece. It’s sweet, it’s warm, it’s sad. Okay, it doesn’t provide the laughs of The Office or even Extras but Gervais himself has never chosen to categorise it as a comedy, as such. In an interview with the British Comedy Guide he said on the subject of it being a comedy or a drama, ‘The answer doesn’t matter really. What matters if you enjoy it…for whatever reason.’ Well I certainly did enjoy it – and so did 1.4 million others…presumably.
Derek is never intended to have audiences rolling around laughing: it has been crafted in order to have people reaching for the tissues crying. I seldom get tearful over TV shows – and I didn’t with Derek – but it’s easy to see why people do. If you eradicate the whole argument of whether Gervais’s performance portrays the character to be mentally disabled, you will see that he presents for us a very sympathetic, likeable man who is the perfect vehicle for him to convey the underlying message about those who are being portrayed within it and how we, as a society, regard them.
A MESSAGE TO CONVEY
Coupled with his genuine love for the character, it is palpable that Gervais has created Derek in order to get across his statement about society’s attitudes. When the pilot of this show aired in Spring 2012, a lot of people (critics and newspaper columnists in particular) speculated that the character is Autistic – something which Gervais has denied in the press previously (stating in an interview with The Sun in March last year, ‘I’ve never thought of him as disabled’) and which he brazenly referenced towards the end of the first episode of this series. When a Council representative visiting the retirement home insensitively questioned Derek as to whether he had ever been tested for Autism, Derek offered a stream of questions about what would happen, should he be Autistic, such as, ‘Would I die?’, ‘Would I have to go into a hospital?’ and ‘Would it change me in any way as a person?’. Having received a ‘no’ to all of these queries, our eponymous hero simply said ‘Don’t worry about it then’. In this small dialogue, which lasted no more than a minute, Gervais perfectly summed up his feelings: so what if Derek is Autistic? Can’t we just enjoy him for the unassuming, kind-natured person he so clearly is without questioning whether he has a disorder or not? For Gervais to reply to his critics so concisely through the mouth of Derek was perfect and ingenious.
In addition, the home’s manager, Hannah (expertly played by Kerry Godliman), delivered a brilliant monologue about caring for the elderly and how much they deserve that care. Had that speech not originated from the pen of Gervais, to be brought to life by the talent of Godliman, it may have seemed sickeningly sentimental but it wasn’t: it managed to convey its message fully without trying too hard.
When I’ve been previewing the week’s TV in my YouTube videos, I’ve championed Derek pretty much throughout and although I love it and have given it a very complimentary review here, I completely understand that it won’t be for everyone. For some, Ricky Gervais himself is unpalatable, so the thought of watching him portray a character who has been (and possibly still is) regarded as politically incorrect is unbearable. However, I implore you to simply give Derek a chance. Whereas I adore The Office and Extras, I’m not a fan of Gervais’s stand-up routines – therefore I’m not a devout fan of his. Nevertheless, I have found a place in my heart for Derek and I’m sure that, given the chance and provided that they don’t start watching with the expectation of laugh-a-minute material, many other people will too.
Derek is on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4
What did you think of Derek? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Feel free to comment below or tweet me about this or any other TV show – @UKTVReviewer
You can also see my recommendations for the coming week’s TV on my YouTube channel.