Derek is a TV series written by, produced by, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais. There have been two series. It’s set in an old people’s home and is shot in the style of The Office, where it is a fake documentary. Derek is available on Netflix (streaming and discs) and DVD.
I admit, when I saw the promo pics for Derek, specifically Karl Pilkington in that god-awful hairpiece, I thought, “Oh God, what ridiculous (ricky-diculous?) project has Ricky Gervais got going now?” I didn’t think much of it, but then it started getting rave reviews.
I’m happy to say my first impression was completely wrong. And why should I expect lowbrow, over-the-top, cheap gags from Ricky Gervais? Didn’t Andy Millman’s journey in and out of fame have heart? And Mark Bellison fabricating the afterlife at his mother’s deathbed so she could die without fear? Gervais’ writing has always had heart, but none of it as much as Derek.
Gervais calls it a sitcom, and maybe it is, but the humor is either subtle or spliced between scenes that are largely dramatic. It’s a serious look at the realities of working in an old folk’s home; how the elderly are treated by society, family, and government; treatment and popular opinion of mental handicaps; treatment of animals; and so on. Gervais’ views come on strongly, but not in an abrasive way. Some of you may have been offended by The Invention of Lying, but offense isn’t such a bad thing as long as it doesn’t turn you off to the point where you can’t see the other person’s perspective. However, Derek takes a different approach. (You’re not going to be offended by Derek unless you find writing Twat on a sea crab too rude.) The “offense” hits you deeper because it shines a light on the things we avoid because they make us feel uncomfortable, even though we know it’s wrong to turn away. You could say it’s television’s moral judgment day. It won’t offend you: it will wake you up.
Stylistically, it’s a sequel to the office because it’s another fictional documentary, but none of the characters have that David Brent level of deception and ego. You don’t have to sort through motives and subtext here.
You have to hand it to Gervais as a director, too. I can only imagine how much coaxing (and conning) he had to do to get Karl Pilkington to play his part so well. Pilkington seems a natural in the role, perhaps because it’s written for him, but I have no doubt that there was some serious directing done to get to that point. I mean, if one of your actors thinks that you’re the only director in the world who shoots a script out of sequence, you’re basically starting from square one, aren’t you?
Anyway, as someone who’s seen everything Gervais has made, I have to say I really think that it might be the bestshow he’s done, and it’s definitely the most important show he’s done. If you don’t believe me, at least watch The Making Of (It doesn’t really give anything away), even if you’re just watching it to see Karl Pilkington and Ricky Gervais argue about Corn Flakes.
I have said that Derek is Ricky Gervais’ most important show to date because it tackles some subjects that maybe not everybody wants to face, like treatment of the elderly and the lack of funding toward their care centers and medication. Season 2 also has heart and deals with difficult subjects like estranged parents and how you should put differences aside to reconnect with them before they die. That said, a lot of season 2 feels like it just gives Gervais an excuse to do what he wants. For example, I think Derek spends an episode at the zoo because Gervais is a huge animal lover and wanted to hang out with the animals. Just my opinion.
Season 2 also deals with Hannah’s personal life–trying to get pregnant and hold onto the relationship that she has; with Kev’s drinking problem, which Derek sees as an echo of his father’s alcoholism; with difficult personalities and how to restore them to good, like Geoff trying to recover from being a dick, much in the same way Vicky was able to redeem herself last season; with the death of Derek’s favorite dog; and ultimately with the impending death of his father. These are new subjects the show takes on and it takes them on in the same way as season 1, which may either feel a bit too samey or you may chalk it up to consistency.
Now, Gervais has said that Karl Pilkington’s character Dougie was not intrinsic to the plot, and while that’s true, season 2 does seem to lack something. Dougie’s replacement Geoff is too hard to like. We’re already struggling to like Kev through his bad behavior and pathetic need for beer, so it’s a lot to ask to also sympathize with someone who’s such a prick all the time. We liked Dougie, but I also understand Pilkington’s need to leave the show and Gervais respectfully allowing him to go.
If you enjoyed seeing “twat” written on a crab in season 1, don’t worry, there are plenty of low-brow gags in season 2 to keep you entertained. Derek learns to ride a bike, Derek sets up a dating profile, and Kev’s brother stops by. I was particularly amused that Kev’s brother is played by Joe Wilkinson because when the first season aired, I wondered why they didn’t have Joe Wilkinson play Kev. He seems to be written for Wilkinson to play.
Jaime Pond is the editor of Anglonerd. She lives and works in NYC. She liked season 1 of Derek better than season 2. Follow her on Twitter.
Originally posted July 22, 2013