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.

Ricky Gervais as David Brent
Ricky Gervais as David Brent

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.

Vicki returns as a care-worker after initially disapproving of the home.
Vicki returns as a care-worker after initially disapproving of the home.

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.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Each new Gervais show is worse than the last…

  2. The Office – Funny
    Extras – Funny
    Life’s Too Short – Funny
    Derek – Pile of sht

  3. This show is just dreadful! It has objectionable characters and straw man plots, and Ricky Gervais’ acting is awful. He plays Derek in an overly mannered way so that it becomes unrealistic. Other characters keep saying how kind he is, but we never really see it. The show may have been improved by getting a proper actor to play the part, and dropping the Kev character altogether. The Doug character occasionally comes on to say to a straw person (like the greedy, selfish daughter who wants her mother’s ring) what the audience is thinking, but he is otherwise a whining prat. Sure, Hannah is nice and there are moments of genuine sweetness (it was these that kept me watching, hoping) but they are few and far between and none of them involves the three men. Take them out and there may be something to salvage.

    The Office was a very good observational comedy, close to the bone and cringe inducing, while Extras was sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But, after seeing Ricky Gervais in interviews and stand up comedy, I can’t help but conclude that he is a nasty piece of work. His film work is terrible. He needs an editor – someone to tell him “No”. Perhaps the real genius is Stephen Merchant.

    • Marcus Dean

      That’s true yeah, aside from the acts he does for the residents, which are technically his job anyway, his perceived kindness is usually more talked about than seen! There is obviously a great cross-over between Gervais and Merchant’s work that they need to re-discover, because Merchant’s solo series wasn’t that great either! But you’re right on the editor front, he needs someone he trusts who is further removed from the content to give him their honest appraisal. And until he gets that, we’re gonna have to sit through hours of drivel to get to the one funny joke each episode!

    • Mr Norfleet

      This seems to be quite a widely-held opinion on the show. I certainly agree.

  4. Erin Derwin
    Erin Derwin

    For Derek is his most memorable work and is a sign of the changing artistic movements taking place. He has been steeped in irony and is now looking towards the authentic. For me this is by far his best work as he ventures into the lives of the elderly which are never looked into. The show presents the lives of people that television refuses to tell. Which is what Gervais did with The Office as well. Derek isn’t meant to be a comedic piece at the forefront.

    The other dimensions that everyone wants to see are there, they are very subtle. When Derek talks about how no one is surprising because we are all surprising is where the dimension happens. Derek sees kindness in everyone when others (apparently the audience) does not. There is a lesson of patience there. I hated Geoff throughout the second series, but when Hannah didn’t fire him I had to rethink my own judgement of him. Especially, when he walked back in to give out tea. The exterior is not the interior.

    • Marcus Dean

      I can certainly appreciate the way Derek deals with the elderly generation and it is refreshing to see it, but I do think it can be rather two-dimensional because most story strands are repeated. The beats where one of the elderly characters recount their youths are probably the most genuinely touching, but at the end of the day, Derek is still a sitcom. That’s what Gervais set out to make and that’s what the show has been branded as. And even though it is rather sweet when it takes it seriously, the fact that it does it so often, takes away from it. Think of The Office again. The reason Dawn’s rejection of Tim hits us so hard is because it’s one of the rare acts of drama in the whole show. I think setting Derek in a care-home just got Gervais too reliant on the dramatic aspects of the show because they were just too difficult to get away from.

  5. Jipe Abel

    I have been a big fan of Gervais for a long time. I loved his XFM shows, and almost everything he’s done since (bar Meet Ricky Gervais, which I’m sure even he would admit was cringeworthy). I wanted so much to love Derek also.

    Derek just seems so formulaic. Awkaward moment, sentimental moment, crude moment, rinse and repeat. It relies so heavily on the fact that old people do in fact die & this makes us sad to try and wrench at our heart strings in order to presumably make us feel like it’s touched us in some way. It just doesn’t work.

    The fact that this has been commissioned for a second season & ‘Hello Ladies’ was not is frankly a sad indictment of the general TV viewing public. While Merchants show was not 100% perfect, compared to Derek it was genius.

    Derek is on par with Little Britain & Catherine Tate in my eyes. Lowest common denominator, money spinning tripe.

    • Marcus Dean

      Formulaic is definitely a word to describe most episodes yes. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as Little Britain or Catherine Tate but I do see your point. It’s quite frustrating to see also, because we know how good Gervais can be. And Derek’s pilot was a great episode of television in my opinion also, they struck the right balance with that episode and then got lost on the way.

  6. Janell Pape

    I thoroughly enjoyed the first season….. Gervais should have wrapped it up and left it at one season.

    The second season was completely off the mark, there was no comedy to speak of, no real humanity, they were going through the motions. The dialog was geared towards shocking not entertaining. The residents played almost no role in the entire second season.

    There were very few “Derek” moments, the memorable one being when he goes after the pee stick in the bathroom.

    The second season has been aimless, one episode left, the right thing to do would be to wrap it up, or if it is to continue, to back to the structure that made the first season so great.

    • Marcus Dean

      Yeah I agree with you, the show’s pilot was the perfect blend. But he got so bogged down with the ‘kindness’ message in this series that he simply relied on Kev for the ‘comedy’, when he is much better suited to a background role!

  7. Markham

    Hopefully his next project will involve Karl Pilkington, atleast a project Karl himself will like more than this, i can’t get enough of this guy he’s hilarious and with Ricky its gold.

  8. Derek is Gervais best work yet. It requires a somewhat more sophisticated nature to understand Derek, not to mention life experiences.

    • your mum

      Really? Tell me more about how Derek requires life experience to truly understand. Maybe you should write an article about all the life experience you need to understand the show. With these qualities pinpointed, Gervais can then make sure no philistines watch the show.

      But it’s okay, they don’t watch it anyway because it is shit.

    • Marcus Dean

      Yeah, silly me. I forgot writing swear words on crabs is the height of sophistication. But im glad you’re on a high enough plain to really appreciate it.

  9. Idalia Dion

    Emotional blackmail, forced story lines, dumb humour, atrocious characters (Kev and Dougie). Very little is good in this. I think the lead care home woman is a good actress and she seems fairly realistic, but that’s about it.

  10. It seems to be going completely against the trend of comedy at the moment, which seems to be a shift from optimism and happy endings to meaner characters and darker storylines (e.g. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or even something like The Big Bang Theory, whose characters are often jerks and, at least early on in the series, rarely get their own way). Perhaps it’s less a fault of the writing that a lot of people really hate Derek and more a fault of it not really being what people are used to at the moment.

  11. Derek isn’t a perfect show but I think it does most things right, it is just a very British humor and I’m alright with it.

    • Marcus Dean

      When done right, I’m quite fond of the humour in the show. I mean, I’m British and a huge fan of Gervais’s work. But as you mentioned also, the things it doesn’t do right outweigh the good for me!

  12. Marcus,
    I loved your article and analysis of the show, but I think its a little unfair to shun Gervais’s work and label it some of his worst. And drawing off from some of the comments made by other people, I do agree the episodes start to become redundant, but there is more to Derek’s character than preaching kindness, kindness, kindness. In one of the episodes, the inspector asks Derek,
    “Derek have you ever been tested for Autism?”
    Derek replies with “Im not very good at tests. . . if I was tistic
    *man interrupts with ‘autistic’*
    Thats what I said, if I was tistic would I die? Would I have to go to the hospital and do experiments on me? Would it change me in anyway would I still be the same person?
    Hannah: Yes
    Derek: “Well don’t worry about it then.”

    The notion of ‘hey well I’m still the same person either way and I’m happy with who I am’ is not a theme that is popular in many of today’s shows.

    I am in agreement with the consensus that Dougie and Kev could have been a bit more engaging. But, with Kev, we still saw some major character development. Mainly the episode where he stops drinking and applies for the job at the home. But on an even more emotional and caring level the episode in which Derek has to get his favorite dog put down and comes back to see Kev had build him a model dog out of scraps of metal.

    It all touches upon the theme of how Derek’s attitude, and optimistic outlook rubbed off on even some of the most rigid characters. In the end, I agree with you all that it could have been executed better, but I think Gervais was brilliant in his portrayal of Derek. I also thing the overall lesson of “here is this mentally handicapped man who doesn’t have any family, and his best friend is a drunk, and he was not dealt the best hand, but he doesn’t see it that way. He cherishes every day, everyone, and every animal, ,remember ‘Derek says…be nice to animals,’ and doesn’t take one moment for granted.”

  13. In light of his more recent appearances as the host of the Golden Globes/Academy Awards, I would say that the answer to the title question is decidedly no.

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