It seems that most people have an opinion when it comes to Ricky Gervais. Some think he is a genius who has created two of the best sitcoms ever – The Office and Extras – while others think he is too smug and believes his own hype.
I sit somewhere in the middle, as while I enjoyed the two aforementioned sitcoms, I wasn’t as taken with them as the majority seemed to be and last year’s Life’s Too Short was just abominable.
On the other hand I thought his and Stephen Merchant’s film Cemetery Junction was very good indeed as it touched on their youth and in parts was fairly bleak, which is a description that can be applied to his latest show the comedy-drama Derek.
The programme sees Gervais going back to his roots playing Derek Noakes, a character he created before The Office became a global hit, who is a simple sort of chap who works in an old folks’ home. Derek is an autograph-hunter, an avid fan of Deal or No Deal and lives with Dougie the caretaker from the home who is played by Gervais regular Karl Pilkington. The programme also focuses on Hannah who seems to be in charge of the home and has worked her way up from a cleaner to the position she is now, but still thinks she can do better. Hannah is the object of Derek’s affections and she has a soft-spot for him but dreams of finding herself a man and having a family something that may happen when she gets together with the grandson of one of the residents.
For the most part Derek explores those who are on the border of society, people some cross the street to avoid. The setting of an old folks’ home certainly fits into that theme. The criticism that has been levelled at the show is that it exploits people with learning difficulties for entertainment value but it is unclear to what extent Derek the character is actually disabled. It is true he is an innocent and isn’t always aware of what is going on around him but the same could be said of Frank Spencer – so if Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em aired today would it be criticised in the same way?
I don’t think Derek is particularly exploitative. It just tells the story of a man who people like to be around as in his own words – he’s not clever or good looking but he is kind. I also feel that this is Hannah’s story as much as it is Derek’s and she is certainly the most normal of the characters here and to most is probably the most relatable in that she left school without qualifications and has essentially ended up in a job that she didn’t really want.
I feel that Derek reminds me the most of the Jo Brand sitcom Getting On and to a lesser extent Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff both of which get their humour from pretty bleak situations. Both Getting On and Derek deal with old people, the former is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital, in settings in which the characters are only friends because they work in the same place. For me though Derek didn’t have the dry humour that Getting On possesses and I never found myself really laughing throughout what was supposed to be a comedy drama. The only character who is there for laughs more than anything else, is Pilkington’s Dougie – someone who exploits where he works to get three free meals a day as well as medicine and even the glasses he wears. Unfortunately though there’s not enough of Dougie here but there are attempts at slapstick humour, such as Derek falling in the pond or him sitting in a bowl full of custard, which for me didn’t work with the overall tone of the piece. I didn’t mind the lack of humour all that much though as I fell in love with all the principal characters which is something I never thought I’d say of a Gervais programme. I feel it is because Ricky isn’t playing the same role we’ve seen him in before, the slightly embarrassing guy who thinks people like him more than they do, instead he slicks his hair over, uses a different voice and wears a selection of unflattering cardigans. There are also no celebrity guests clambering to work with Gervais with the only famous faces here being pictures of those who have donated money to the home, such as Kris Marshall and Fearne Britton, in order for them to buy a computer, on which Derek loves watching YouTube videos of cats.
So the big question has to be is there enough in Derek to justify a whole series? For me the answer is certainly as there were enough plot-lines to stretch out over a least one series and I would like to see more of these characters. If I were to suggest some adjustments then I would bin the slapstick humour in favour of more organic laughs in conversations between the characters which would mean fleshing out Pilkington’s role a bit more as well as hearing more from Derek’s other friend Kev. But overall this was a delightful yet bleak look at those who are often ostracised by the general public but who have found friendship with each other and this is definitely the first Ricky Gervais-fronted TV show that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who likes a good character-driven piece.