Luke Graham reviews Ricky Gervais’ comedy drama Derek, which aired last on Channel 4…
The pilot for Ricky Gervais’ new show debuted last night. It was certainly an intriguing beast, judging from the responses on Twitter. Some were very negative, seemingly enraged that it wasn’t “funny enough,” to the more positive, appreciating it for its emotional drama.
Certainly, there wasn’t as much laughter as one might expect from the writer of The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short, and book-ending the pilot with the “Fosters: sponsoring original comedy” advert was perhaps inappropriate, but I think Gervais is trying to do something very different, special and perhaps (for himself at least) important.
Derek follows Derek Noakes, a care worker at a retirement home, as he interacts with his co-workers and the homes inhabitants. Derek is like a modern Frank Spencer, trying to do his best but mostly making mistakes.
Gervais’ performance as Derek, with his awkward stance, speech pattern and mannerisms, provoked controversy during the last few weeks, as people feared Gervais might be making fun out of the disabled. Gervais defended his portrayal, saying that the character is not disabled. However, in the pilot, Derek does come across as having a mild form of autism or aspergers, or some form of learning difficulty, but it is treated delicately, and Derek’s disabilities are not the direct butt of any jokes.
Not that there are many jokes. Like I said, this is Gervais trying his hand at something different, an attempt to write moving drama. Perhaps through a lack of confidence, Gervais adds a few scenes of slapstick humour, which feel forced and out of place.
Alongside Gervais is the brilliant Kerry Godliman as nurse Hannah and Karl Pilkington basically playing himself as caretaker Dougie. There could be an interesting dynamic between the three. They are troubled people: Derek lacks social skills, Hannah is lonely, Dougie seems to have anger issues (or this is just Pilkington being himself). These troubles give the characters the potential for depth, and by interacting they overcome their isolation, but maybe I am looking for depth that is not there. Furthermore, the interactions between Derek and Dougie sound more like clips from the podcasts that Gervais and Pilkington used to do, which is a shame because it breaks immersion. Gervais’ performance also breaks immersion: his shuffling feet and constant gurning is distracting, especially during the more engaging, dramatic moments.
The structure of the episode was also peculiar, but in its own way engaging. There is no single main plot, just short vignettes about life in a retirement home, which could have been expanded and perhaps needed to be developed. Maybe this was the constraint of it being a pilot and Gervais’ desire to include all these story ideas. I don’t know if Gervais has actually done any research into conditions in retirement homes or what it’s like to work in one, but I hope he has, otherwise people may find his treatment rather condescending and superficial. In all honesty, the first half of the episode is not particularly successful as a comedy or a drama, but the characterisations are engaging, and the final vignette about Derek and a patient named Joan seemed to pay off most. I (and most others) found this last sequence the most emotionally engaging and approaching perfection, even if, on reflection, the actual relationship was not well developed and the choice of music (Nuvole Bianche by Ludovico Einaudi) is very unsubtle, telling us “this is meant to be poignant and sad!”
But at the time it works. It fits the documentary style (a style that Gervais is very comfortable with) and it allows these characters to voice their feelings directly to the audience. Again, this aversion to the “show don’t tell” rule is not subtle (for example, Derek telling us he is kind, rather than showing us he is kind) but it’s Gervais, he is not particularly subtle, but he is trying here (trying a lot harder than he had on Life’s Too Short) and it is good to see Gervais trying to do more drama, because he can do it very well (see the Christmas specials of The Office and Extras).
I think Derek is very important for Gervais. Through setting the show in a retirement home, he is attempting to raise an issue about how we treat and care not only for the elderly, but for the people around us. It is an attempt to write more drama instead of comedy, and to move away from writing about fame and writing about characters who are unlikeable, but write about people who are normal and, more importantly, kind.