Ever since stumbling upon The Office (UK) and Extras, I have been quite the admirer of most things Ricky Gervais. Much has been written about the splendor of these television shows, so I shall refrain from clogging up the air waves with my own brand of gushing here.
Some time back, I heard that Mr. Gervais was reprising his role as Derek Noakes (a character he developed years ago that first featured in his stand up show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001), and that Derek was going to be both the protagonist and title of Gervais’ latest television project. I was curious, of course, but after having watched Life’s Too Short (the sitcom Gervais wrote and directed prior to Derek), my expectations were minimal to say the least. After all, Life’s Too Short was nothing more than a bland rehashing of earlier gags and characters, a dreadful handling of cameos (perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen on screen), and the most convincing argument to run for the hills at the mention of the name “Ricky Gervais.” What hope was there that Derek would be any better?
As the press junkets and PR frenzy commenced, two things about Derek seemed to bubble to the surface. First, there was controversy about Ricky Gervais playing an ostensibly mentally handicapped person, and poking fun at mental illness in the process. “He’s gone too far this time,” cried a group of disgruntled reporters – probably the same ones who’d panned Gervais’ performances as host of the Golden Globes. Second, and perhaps less conspicuous, was the fact that Gervais’ long-time writing partner Stephen Merchant was not involved in the production of Derek. Given that the two have worked successfully on a number of things together over the years (television as well as film), it was difficult to predict what would happen without half the team. Then again, after the dismal failure that was Life’s Too Short, perhaps going “solo” was the only sensible thing left for Gervais to do.
To ward off the hullabaloo about the show’s mockery of mental illness, Gervais put out a pilot episode of Derek on April 12, 2012 in the UK, well before the series officially aired on January 30, 2013 on Channel 4. It was a smart move in my opinion, as it allowed people to get whatever grievances they had out of their system so that they could engage with the series with a “fresh emotional palette” (I coined that phrase). Oh, it’s probably worth mentioning that Derek is not mentally handicapped according to Ricky Gervais. He should know, what with being writer, director, actor and all.
There are a few things that I’ve found deeply affecting about the show. First, the setting: virtually all of the action in Derek takes place at Broad Hill Residential Care Home for the Elderly. On an emotional level, Broad Hill is inherently evocative as it is situated on the periphery of society (the elderly being a socially marginalized group) and because one of life’s great tragedies (death) is a prevalent and inescapable part of its landscape. There is something disarming about the setting, making you less inclined to scrutinize and more susceptible to empathizing. It’s as if we instantly root for the characters as underdogs, want them to “win,” and want to protect them from anything that would disrupt their peace and fragility. We are on their side simply by virtue of the fact that they reside at Broad Hill.
Second, the characters. Derek Noakes is a stunning character – encompassing all the kindness we have and all the kindness we don’t. He’s sincere and innocent, with no trace of guile or ulterior motive. He experiences everything without any sort of protective filter or clever social artifice, which of course means that we care a great deal about him and what happens to him. And he’s brilliantly written too. One of my favourite tics of Derek is a little gasp he lets out whenever he has some sort of epiphany (usually the equivalent of discovering it’s Monday and that the dessert of the day is rubarb crumble and custard). In a very real sense, it’s rather difficult not to love him.
There’s also Dougie (played by Karl Pilkington), who is everything that you’d think Karl Pilkington would be – unimpressed, straightforward, and nonchalant – but with an awesome and determined sense of justice that breaks out whenever Broad Hill residents are close to being taken advantage of. And who could forget Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the tireless and devoted worker who basically holds the place together. In addition to Gervais’ stellar performance as Derek (one of his best, in my opinion), Godliman’s acting is of particular note – so effortless, natural, and real.
In addition to the setting and the characters, the entire premise of the show is magical. It’s a show about kindness. And given its setting and characters, I’ve found that as various instances of kindness occur in Derek (and there are plenty), they are meaningful and profound, but without the trappings of cheap sentimentality. That, I think, is a testimony to the maturity of Gervais’ writing – and I think a case can be made that this work not only demonstrates maturity as a writer, but as a director and actor as well.
Though fans of The Office and Extras will find resonances in Derek, for the most part I’ve found the latter to be a unique, positive step forward for Ricky Gervais. It’s the best dramedy of his I’ve seen (Channel 4 describes it as “A bittersweet comedy drama about a group of outsiders living on society’s margins. Written, directed by and starring Ricky Gervais”). This is especially welcome since there wouldn’t be much point to him resting on his laurels or reinventing the wheel. After all, the world needs more kindness. That, and life’s too short.
Watch the pilot below and see Ricky Gervais’ YouTube channel to watch the other episodes: