“It’s slightly more sincere than my previous work,” Ricky Gervais said of his new series Derek at the Netflix premiere event in September, displaying what is either the actor’s trademark self-deprecating sarcasm – a brand of humor that has translated into successful and hilarious dark comedies like The Office and Extras – or the supremely oblivious earnestness that seems to have doomed his latest venture.
It’s not just that Derek is saccharine to the point of embarrassment (nearly every episode features a musical interlude where the camera pans across its noble characters to an unbearably mawkish soundtrack); the show’s preoccupation with goodness and with its own sincerity is precisely why it feels untrustworthy. The titular character, played by Gervais, is either a volunteer or employee at a small British old-age home where he befriends and cares for the residents, loves the nurse who runs the place (Kerry Godliman, whose direct and natural performance anchors the show), and gets into naïve scrapes with a smiling underbite. He’s also the cheerful, tender-hearted mascot for the cute-ification of disability (or at least lower-than-average intelligence), a child-like object for our feel-good protection, who in turn protects a gaggle of undifferentiated surrogate mothers. What Gervais calls “just a very sweet little goofy show” is so obsessively moralistic one briefly wonders if it’s all a grand scheme – a devious bit of trickery that encourages viewers to gorge on its sentiment and message as it serves up quite a different one: that our consumption of such narratives is self-satisfying and maudlin.
But Gervais seems too enamored of Derek to be up to such a long con. “I’d walk around in sweatpants and a jumper with my hair forward all day if I could,” he says, “It’s so refreshing.” He clearly relishes his character’s physicality, one defined by traits typically associated with the autism spectrum (though people with high-functioning autism are often not intellectually impaired), and though Gervais has stated that Derek is not mentally disabled, his dismissal of this reading feels more like an insurance policy than honest engagement with what will be a likely-drawn conclusion by viewers. Gervais goes as far as to invoke this perception of Derek by outsiders within the show, and he seems to take great delight in playing his character’s social and intellectual limitations, all the while writing him the unflaggingly selfless dialogue of a saint.
This is the root of Derek‘s failure: Gervais views his championing of the outsider – the old, the slow, the socially awkward – as profound, “refreshing”; it’s enough to say “I see the humanity in these characters” than to actually give them any. No one on screen escapes singing Derek’s praises, to the point that I begin to wonder who Gervais thinks he needs to convince. Meanwhile, the elderly folks at the care home mostly sit silent in the background or let Derek hold their hand as they sleep, and despite Derek’s (and Gervais’s) obvious admiration, they’re never treated as more than an idea.
And it’s a ceaselessly repeated idea – that it is better to be kind, to “Be Like Derek” as the show’s twitter handle entreats – on which all nuance and richness of the show is blunted. Following the hard-edged brilliance and cynicism of Extras and The Office, a soft and sentimental enterprise like Derek seems an audacious choice for Gervais, and one he’s acutely aware of. “I’ve done like 10 years exploring fame in my work and I wanted to get back to ordinary people,” he said from the red carpet at the MoMa, and I wonder if by “ordinary” people he means “uncompromisingly simple.” The seven-episode debut season (which has been renewed for a second season by the UK’s Channel 4) had an opportunity to tell real, interesting stories with characters of an age so frequently overlooked; in fact, combatting this “overlooking” seems to be a central mission of the show. But it fails to live up to its premise: it peoples the home with outlandishly blunt relatives who say things no human being has ever said, and rehashes tired scenarios like the devoted husband of an Alzheimer’s patient getting to “fall in love 365 days a year.”
Derek is not without its pleasures, and it does get some things right. Gervais’s performance, when he settles down from his insecure reliance on facial tics, can be quite affecting and deliciously joyful. Godliman, as nurse Hannah, is written as saintly as her co-star but grounds her scenes with such ease and affability that she carries the show and almost wins us over. If only she didn’t have to parrot so many of Gervais’s cloying requests for our affection and sympathy. And despite some frequently trite hijinks (Derek’s fallen in a pond! Derek’s running nude through the lobby!) there are lovely moments of acceptance and community that, given the right mood, can feel like real triumphs in an increasingly snark-saturated cultural landscape.
Yet it’s this capacity for genuine feeling that is so frustrating about the sloppy craftsmanship of Derek. The editing is sometimes downright bizarre. The story is oddly paced; scenes cut a little later than they should, and strange music-drenched montages pepper the narrative as though the show was put together by a mediocre wedding videographer.
If one were to try to make the case that Gervais is pulling our collective leg, one needn’t look any further than the last of these sequences. Though the last episode of the season sees Derek finally display something other than unadulterated kindness, it ends with a forgiving embrace while Coldplay’s (oppressively) ubiquitous “Fix You” plays – a song memorably featured in Extras when a jaded Chris Martin promotes his album on the show-within-the-show When the Whistle Blows. Extras’ parody of catchphrase comedy stars a gimmicky, tic-ridden Mr. Stokes, who shares more than a few attributes with Gervais’s newest hero, and satirizes the groan-worthy contrivances of television (like shoe-horned musical interludes).
Could someone so ruthlessly familiar with the manipulations of the TV business as Ricky Gervais have been as naïve as to release the undiluted schmaltz of Derek? Perhaps contrasted with Gervais’s caustic public persona, the novelty of a character for whom he feels only admiration is its own reward for the man who gave us David Brent and Andy Millman. Maybe he should have let someone else direct, someone who would “show, not tell” us of Derek’s goodness and nobility (and maybe some other characteristics as well). Or maybe Gervais was, in the end, more interested in performing a bit of activism (and capitalizing on it?) than creating a truthful and complex world, as the show’s pointed social media would attest.
Or maybe (I can dream), just maybe, he’s “having a laugh” on all of us.