Derek: Has Kindness and Public Adoration Blunted Gervais’s Comedic Teeth?
As continually pointed out by Ricky Gervais on his Twitter account, the public’s reception of season two of Derek has been ‘literally the best response I have ever received for anything’. But has that public adoration led Gervais to craft his weakest series yet? Although The Office presented a realistic and barbarous take on everyday British life that was, for some, too difficult to watch, it has always been considered a seminal work of British comedy that changed the platform for sitcoms worldwide. Even though it’s softly sweet depiction of a generation that’s easy to forget has struck particular resonance with a mainstream audience, this is something you could never say about Derek. After the critically and commercially panned Life’s Too Short, Gervais parted ways with Stephen Merchant so they could pursue individual projects. It was perhaps this time apart, as well as the critical reading that Gervais and Merchant’s work has ‘never been more mean-spirited’, that set Gervais on his new path to kill people with kindness.
Looking at the raw ingredients, Derek shares a lot of DNA with The Office; a strong female lead in Hannah, an underplayed romance at the centre, a setting that Gervais personally knows due to his family all working in care homes, and of course, the most obvious, it’s Mockumentary format. But despite these similarities, the shows couldn’t be more different; whereas The Office favours a commitment to the realistic portrayal of human behaviour, Derek largely presents characters as two-dimensional beings whose sole purpose is to service the plot.
Think of David Brent in The Office: a buffoon? Sure. A fame-hungry cringe-inducing boss from hell? Certainly. But a two-dimensional character incapable of surprising the audience? Definitely not; for every time Brent would mug to the cameras showing off his ‘knowledge’ of Dostoyevsky, you could bet there’d be another candid moment where the documentary crew would catch a fragile Brent pleading for his job. But it didn’t just stop there, even Tim and Dawn, considered by many as the only nice and normal characters in the series, had their dark moments. Think of when Tim lets the marginal power of his mini-promotion go to his head as he forces Dawn to go back to work whilst the rest of the office enjoyed the party, and Dawn was just as bad when she gave Tim a definitely too-long peck on Red Nose Day when she felt jealous of his burgeoning relationship with Rachel. And it was these conflicts that made the show so darn irresistible. Watching these realistic characters struggle through life’s problems in the same vein we do, we were disappointed in them when they made mistakes, but then we also spewed out joy when they finally came to their senses and that’s what made the show so relatable.
In Derek Noakes, Gervais has crafted an affable and selfless character, someone much more interested in the welfare of animals and his friends then he would ever be for himself. Having those qualities in a character is a refreshing image to see on television, but unfortunately, that is the sum of Derek’s being. With no interest in being selfish for personal gain, no matter how minimal, Derek always comes across as decidedly one-note and despite that one-note being a resoundingly cheerful one, it can quickly become tiresome. This character flaw wasn’t as prevalent in the show’s first run and has become a much more prominent factor in pretty much all of season two’s episodes. A good example of this is Derek’s account of resident waster Kev in Episode five.
“Kev’s good isn’t he? I likes it when he surprises people. He doesn’t surprise me, I knows he’s good. I don’t think anyone’s surprising, cos’ I always thinks everyone’s surprising. Do you know what I mean? You can’t ever think you know someone, cos’ they’ve always got something else. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Kev surprises you when he need’s to, it’s great.”
– Season 2, Episode 4; 20:20-20:58
As an isolated moment peppered into the series, this thoughtful account of a character that unashamedly looks up old women’s skirts and drinks Special Brew like its water, could be a really touching sentiment for the show to visit. But considering it is just another preachy monologue with an almost identical counterpart in every episode leading up to it, the thought behind the words feels resoundingly hollow. Perhaps as a way of battling his naysayers who branded him as mean-spirited, Gervais uses these opportunities to air his own beliefs as a substitute for creating drama and perhaps even more importantly for a sitcom, comedy.
The show’s first series was just as guilty of this, but in a slightly different way. Five of the first season’s six episodes featured visitors to the old people’s home, all of which were immediately judgemental of the home and its residents. Varying from well-known complaints of the perceived smell in care-homes, to the more analytical point of view given by a council representative when reviewing the home’s funding. Of those five visitors, two characters pre-conceived notions of care homes are challenged and by the end of the episode they realise the age-old sentiment that ‘old people are people too’, with one of those two even returning to the home as a worker.
Although the other three visitors to Broad Hill also share the same initial problems with the home, they fall one step short of realising the error of their ways. Leading those characters to instead be shamed into escaping the home by the staff, leaving the audience with a sour taste in their mouths about the character’s closed-mindedness. While I’m sure this point of view is one held by a minor group of people around the country, I struggle to believe it is the overriding thought in most people’s minds when visiting care homes. With a council member directly disapproving of the personal way the home is ran, a visiting daughter only interested in securing her mums jewellery and another who belittles the quality of working in a care home, Derek would like you to believe that the general consensus of people’s opinions of old people’s homes is a decidedly negative one. And having been a visitor to many of those homes myself, I can tell you that is completely false.
After displaying these horrendously two-dimensional characters that disapprove of the home, the show is able to play on its considerable strengths in manipulating the audience. By shaming any characters that would be overt enough to speak out against the clear and passionate job that many care-workers do up and down the country, the show panders to the mainstream audience’s ideal that we should do what we can to show our support for care-homes.
This kind sentiment at the centre of the show is definitely something which should be admired if done right, but unfortunately in Derek it isn’t. After witnessing the widespread praise from audiences for its ‘kindness is magic’ tag, Gervais got ready to retool Derek for a second run. But in doing so he simply repeated himself once more, albeit in a more direct way. The aforementioned Derek monologue about Kev is one of many direct-to-camera confessionals by Gervais in which he preaches kindness and generosity as a world message. A sentiment we all share. But just because it’s a true sentiment, doesn’t mean it has any right to be front and centre of a national sitcom.
I’m a huge fan of Gervais’s work and despite all my problems with it, Derek still has many moments to make an audience laugh and many moments to make them cry. But as a series, it just doesn’t really work. Take the character of Jeff in season two, introduced in the first episode as an adversary to Karl Pilkington’s Dougie. With each episodes passing we learn more negative information about him; that he doesn’t respect the old people, that his political views are slightly too far-right and that he genuinely believes there are camps somewhere in Britain that hide ‘Human-zee’ babies. He is never presented to us as a three-dimensional character in the same way David Brent was in The Office. Instead Derek uses its main characters to show a directly oppositional image of complete (and unrealistic) kindness to slowly reign the bitter character of Jeff in, which inevitably happens in the series finale. So rather than the fair portrayal of conflicted characters that became so celebrated in The Office, we are simply left with characters so poorly drawn out they’d be under-developed as cartoons.
It’s for that reason that Derek will never be remembered in the same vein as Gervais’s earlier work. Because for all the worthy sentiment and earnestness the show displays, the way it cakes it in unbelievable stereotypes of characters in modern-day Britain will always mar its potential impact.
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