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.

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2 Responses to Derek

  1. For the most part I agree.

    There were some lovely tender moments in the show, which Ricky has always done well: the blossoming romance between Tim and Dawn; the love hate friendship between Andy and Maggie. The issues do lie in the script and characterisation – it simply wasn’t funny enough, and characters came across as pretty flat, especially Karl who really was just playing himself. I would love to see more and think it has great potential. Gervais really must flesh out the character of Derek though, otherwise his two dimensional portrayal of the a disabled person runs the risk of needlessly offending more people.

  2. Sam Flowers says:

    Good review. I am still not sure what I feel about this show – it is certainly a difficult one to define genre-wise. I don’t consider it a comedy and perhaps that is the inevitable expectation of having the eponymous character played by Ricky Gervais. Perhaps it is a stepping-stone for him doing more observational material that is played straight rather than just for laughs.

    I wonder what I would have made of it if Ricky Gervais was unknown to me – would I have stuck with it to the end or even watched it at all.

    The subject matter was certainly a worthy one though – not just of someone with a learning disability but also its portrayal of elderly people and how they can be treated as if they’re almost invisible. As your review states the short-comings lay not in its conception but its execution.

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