There had been quite a bit of advance publicity about Ricky Gervais’ new comedy pilot, Derek, for Channel 4. Portraying a man of unidentifiable learning disability who works in an old people’s home, critics have been sharpening their knives to remind us that Gervais’ attitude towards people with disabilities is very hard to assess (to put it nicely). Was Gervais’ portrayal of Derek going to another vehicle where he ridicules someone and offends a large section of the population?
Well, actually it was a rather kind and gentle show. There was no mocking of Derek – the only characters who did (some girls in a pub) were portrayed as rude and silly and subsequently headbutted. Derek was just a very nice guy who is in love with his colleague Hannah and enjoys spending time with the residents of the home.
The problem with the show then, and I’m afraid there was a problem, was primarily with the acting and partly with the script. Although Gervais was qute good at portraying tender moments and emotions, as always the case with Gervais he doesn’t have any range. He speaks with the same intonations and the same quirks as so many of his other characters. There’s the pointing at people and things and glancing at camera that he always does in these mock-documentary shows. There’s the way he acts when he’s incredulous about something and huffs and shrugs. Then there were issues in the script when Derek was asking those ‘would you rather’ questions that Gervais’ characters always seem to love.
The other acting problem came with Gervais’ friend and ‘idiot’ Karl Pilkington, here playing a caretaker called Douglas who is Derek’s best friend. Pilkington is not known as an actor and again he was just playing a version of himself – a grumpy man who doesn’t really like anything. Having two bad actors didn’t help, especially when Hannah (Kerry Godliman) was good and deserved better from her colleagues.
The final problem with the show was that it was not funny. It was definitely not a sitcom, but rather a comedy-drama. The Channel 4 website describes it as ‘bitter-sweet’. With the death of Derek’s favourite resident, June, while he is out buying their weekly lottery ticket, and the budding flirtation/romance between Hannah and a resident’s grandson, the story doesn’t have much in it to make you laugh.
Derek was a sole project for Ricky Gervais. Some people have claimed that it is the lack of Stephen Merchant which explains the problems with Derek, but it’s hard to know who does what in their partnership. With some better actors, a tighter script-edit written without Gervais’ voice pervading through, this could have been and could be a nice heart-warming, and even awareness-building, programme. Instead, it will just be another show to add to Gervais’ CV and to forget about by the beginning of next week until the next potential controversy rears it head for everyone to talk about.