Hey, Ricky Gervais has made a new TV show!
Yeah, me too.
But I watched it anyway, so let’s crack on. Derek is a strange little show, describing itself as a “comedy/drama” while sort of being neither. I spent the whole show feeling slightly uncomfortable and it’s almost as if Gervais noticed my discomfort and tried to distract me with pratfalls and feelings. This was not immersive television; I spent the whole time fully aware that I was watching Gervais play a, erm, challenged individual with the same awkward embarrassment I tend to feel when a drunken family member makes racist jokes at the dinner table. I say “challenged” because Gervais himself has rejected the label “mentally disabled” for the Derek character, instead describing him as oddly nerdy. Either way, Derek is definitely lingering at the shallow end of the bell curve and you have to wonder: why?
To set the scene for you: Derek is a careworker at an old people’s home with his co-characters being the rest of the staff, including Karl Pilkington as the building’s caretaker. His “friends” are a bunch of oddballs with a fellow careworker Hannah playing the straight-but-tragic role needed to keep Gervais’s circus grounded. The whole thing is filmed in mockumentary style, as is Gervais’s wont, but I feel he missed a trick with not going the whole hog and directing the whole thing in the style of Channel 4’s new breed of camera-on-the-wall documentary dramas. In The Family, One Born Every Minute and Educating Essex, Channel 4 have brought new life to the documentary format with their hands-off, meticulously edited approach to observational storytelling that I think Gervais would have revelled in. After all, the success of the aforementioned shows lies in the quirky characters at the centre of the documentaries (i.e. the hilarious dad, the hard-working midwives,the deputy head) and Gervais does quirky characters well.
As quirky characters go, the eponymous Derek is a hard one to wrap my head around. The problem is, he’s played in exactly the same way that we’ve seem Gervais play “comedy retard”, if you’ll forgive the horrible turn of phrase. He’ll damp his fringe down, stick his jaw out, slightly cross his eyes and shuffle about the place like Frankenstein’s assistant; and this is exactly the way he plays Derek. Oh, he desperately tries to make his as lovable as possible: the other characters heap praises on him for being such a sweetheart and incapable of hurting a fly; he’ll cry his eyes out when an old lady passes away; he’ll try and look after a little worm by dipping his head in a pond for a drink. But none of these incredibly subtle character insights distract from Gervais overplaying a challenged individual like a cartoon simpleton.
And it’s all so… unnecessary. Does he have to come across as mentally ill? Goodness knows you can have loveable fools as main characters without dipping into mental disability – you can look no further than The Office (UK and US) for examples of that. So why does he feel the need to go there? It’s just so distracting and, to be honest, a little bit humiliating. If you watch Glee or Breaking Bad you’ll see disabled roles being filled by actually disabled actors (Lauren Potter with Down’s Syndrome and RJ Mitte with Cerebral Palsy respectively) and their disabilities don’t distract from their performance or the richness of their characters the way Gervais’s absolutely does here.
It’s a shame really, because he could have done something nice with this setup – the bleak environment populated with loving but slightly oddball characters. Instead the whole thing seems to be trying to do too many things at once so that the only thing consistent throughout is crazy ol’ Gervais prancing from scene to scene like a dude in blackface. Much like Gervais himself, Derek seems to get in the way of all the things I started to get interested in, leaping in front of the camera and shouting “Look at me! I’m the focus of your attention!”. The tragic, noble character of Hannah who never found time to build her own life and find love was a hundred times more interesting than anything Derek could have said or done and if only he could have restrained himself for a scene or two I might have find myself wanting more, but… alas, no.
I’m beginning to think Gervais is comedy’s M Night Shyamalan. Everyone still clings to the hope that he’s a treasure to television because his first show was such a game-changing hit but as time goes on we’re frantically reaching to dust off the ten year old VHS tapes and wonder if we missed something the first time around.