It has all the markings of a terrible vanity project. A well-known comedian creates a developmentally challenged middle-aged adult living and ‘working’ at a senior care home in London. The actor decides to write, produce and direct every episode and it will be shot as a mock-umentary, much like his most famous television work to date. A lot of warning bells should be ringing. If the same person is the star, producer, writer and director or every episode, who will be there to tell the star “maybe that should be toned down a bit”. No one. And that is why “Derek”, the new British series from Ricky Gervais, initially caused thornhill a lot of consternation.
But I will give most new shows a chance (as evidenced by the thirty minutes I recently wasted watching “Jennifer Falls” - thirty minutes I will never get back) so I watched the first episode of “Derek”.
“Derek”, originally produced for the British TV broadcaster Channel 4 and picked up by Netflix, immediately draws you in to the senior care home and the staff of odd cast-offs who work there. There are now two ‘series’ of the show available on the streaming service. But don’t get too excited. It is a British show - two series means there are only thirteen episodes available.
Gervais plays Derek, and as mentioned before he is the creative force behind the entire series; he wrote, produced and directed every episode. Gervais’ creation is a really understated character; he is mentally underdeveloped and spends his days amongst the senior citizens at the home. He swirls around them and the people who work at the home, his hyperactivity and tics apparent at all times, ‘working’, yet really just interacting with the residents and staff. Shot in the same style as “The Office”, a handheld camera follows the action allowing Derek, who is very aware and accepting of the camera, to interact with the crew, and us. If someone does or says something funny, Derek will turn to the camera to make sure they caught it, or to make sure they saw the same thing he did. This sounds much more gimmicky than it is; this is Derek’s way of acknowledging things as they happen and because he is interacting with us, we become a part of the story.
Gervais seems to completely lose himself in Derek. Every mannerism and tic, his shuffle, his speech patterns, everything seems authentic and helps us to see this middle-aged man with a very child-like sensibility for who he is. It is really a remarkable performance, more so because it could have been the complete opposite.
“Derek” isn’t a laugh-out-loud type of comedy. It is much more understated, much more observational, more amusing than funny. So when Derek turns to look at the camera, it isn’t meant to be a punchline, it is meant to signal to the camera crew and to us “Did you catch that?” These glances at the camera are also ripe for misinterpretation. In a more traditional comedy, they would be the drum-roll accompanying a punch line. But in this show, they aren’t that obvious and seem completely natural.
Derek’s ‘boss’ Hannah (Kerry Godliman) is the woman who oversees everything about the senior home. She is the type of woman who spends every moment of her life in the job, at the home, caring for the people who live there. And as a result, her personal life suffers. Hannah seems to be the complete opposite of the stereotype and really cares for the seniors. The most normal of all the characters, she provides a balance to the other more eccentric people surrounding her. She is also frequently interviewed for the documentary, providing commentary in short talking head segments.
The soft-spoken maintenance man, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), ambles around the home, fixing things slowly and methodically. As he is always around, he is a voice of reason for Derek, a sounding board for some of his more eccentric ideas. He is nice to have around.
Strangely, at the beginning of Series 2, he gets into an argument with a new employee and quits, leaving the show. Not sure why this was done, as Dougie is a much funnier, more interesting character than his replacement.
Kev (David Earl) is another adult who seems to live at/ hang out at the senior home. Never seen without a can of ale, he is a barely functional alcoholic who spends most of the day lying in a chair in front of a television in the common room. Yes, he lies in the chair. Obsessed with sex, he frequently talks about all manner of sexual acts and uses slang terms for parts of the female anatomy. The least interesting character, Kev is necessary to have around because he is the complete opposite of Derek in every way, crude, rude and drunk all the time.
Series 2 seems to devote a lot more time to Kev’s sexual fixations which seems to spread to many of the other people in the series. In the first season, Kev made an occasional comment, used an odd slang term for female genitalia. The infrequent use of these terms seemed to be more of a punctuation, giving us a little insight into this depraved, under-developed man’s psyche. In Series 2, the references almost seem non-stop; everything Kev does or says is sexually- charged and there is a lot more focus on his character. Gervais is clearly responsible – he must really like this type of humor and ramps it up because he realizes he can get away with it. It’s unsettling, and a bit odd, because the rest of the writing and directing isn’t at this level. Derek’s dad becomes a resident of the home at the end of Series 1. In Series 2, he starts putting the moves on the females at the home, leading to a joke that would be more at home in a Farrelly Brothers film. And there are many references to Hannah and Tom’s relationship – everyone in the home seems to know everything they are doing and openly share information about it, much to their frustration.
In the middle of Series 1, a young woman in her twenties volunteers at the senior home. Vicky (Holli Dempsey) is initially repulsed by the seniors, but at the beginning of series 2, she is now working at the home, giving the women beauty treatments. Strangely, even this development is tied into the increased sexual activity. Tom (Brett Goldstein) visits his Nan at the home and attracts the eye of Hannah. They begin seeing each other and their relationship helps to make Hannah seem more human.
While these moments seem at odds with the rest of the series, they also seem a small price to pay for everything that is good in “Derek”. In each series, I was brought to tears. How often can you say that about a television program? Because Gervais has the freedom to basically do what he wants, he is able to wrench a great deal of emotion out of the narrative. And the viewer is the benefit of that.
To borrow a cliché. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll want more of “Derek”.