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Ricky Gervais’ latest series, Derek, now available on Netflix, is unlike other television shows in a number of ways. The one that struck me as most interesting was the motivation behind it. Normally that’s not much of an issue unless, say, there’s a tremendous backstory about the passionate pursuit of a series creator seeing an internal vision come to life — examples: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.
But as we head into fall and a flood of offerings churn toward us, it’s clear most of those shows exist without much reason beyond, “We had an idea and pitched it” or the less sexy need to fulfill a contract obligation. Yet as I watched Derek, I couldn’t get past wondering why Gervais felt the need to make the series about a kind man working at an eldercare facility. Clearly Derek the character has issues — Gervais has said that Derek is not mentally disabled — and in one episode, Derek is asked whether he’s been evaluated for autism. The series deftly makes a point, to its credit, that it doesn’t really matter. Derek is the most kind and tireless worker, and if they could have five more just like him, they would.
Although Gervais has performed iterations of the Derek character in his stand-up routines, this is a much more fully formed attempt at making a memorable character and telling his story. Dramatically it’s a huge departure for Gervais in that, like all characters that are perceived to have either mental or physical disabilities (the argument about where Derek falls on the spectrum is secondary here), the physical manifestation of the character requires the actor to remake himself completely. And in doing so, the emphasis on the transformation puts the actor under a larger than normal microscope.
In Derek, Gervais juts out his lower jaw, his mouth remains open, teeth exposed. His hair is oily and unkempt — he nervously brushes it to the side as a tic. He’s either shuffling or loping about when moving. Gervais plays Derek slightly hunched over, his eyes darting away from contact, with the character’s social skills clearly amiss. You can’t, in short, stop looking at Derek. It’s a bold choice that cuts both ways for Gervais.
Although there’s been some critical kickback in Britain that Gervais is somehow making a mockery of the mentally disabled, it couldn’t be more clear from Derek that he’s not. Yes, as a comedian, the first thing we think of with Gervais is having a laugh. And yes, the inclusion of comic foil Karl Pilkington in the series sets the audience up to anticipate humor. But it rarely comes — also the point, I think. Though there is plenty of humor in Derek, what Gervais is doing (and even what Pilkington is doing for the most part), is much more attuned to the dramatic side, emphasizing the sentimental, the sweet and the serious over the comedic.
That decision makes watching Derek a wholly different experience for viewers. And while the series surprises in many ways (despite the faux documentary approach that’s now too familiar), Derek is just two-dimensional. He’s the ultimate in selfless devotion to one of the most disenfranchised groups in society. But the emphasis on his kindness, his lack of judgment or ulterior motives — which becomes more apparent as the episodes unfold — make Derek perhaps too sweet or saintly.
And yes, I know that many of Gervais’ family, relatives and friends are care workers — some working directly with the elderly and thus would be natural material to explore, answering the why-do-this question. But it’s one thing to know or relate to the material and completely another to make the decision to do something about it — to write, act and direct an entire series about it, especially one so fraught with peril as Derek. I suspect that Gervais wanted to take the biggest leap of his creative life to try something new.
Creative people getting out of their comfort zones is something I always endorse. But I couldn’t help thinking that Extras accomplished this more effectively. True, it didn’t require the massive character make-over that exists with Derek, but Extras was really brilliant on so many levels (partly because it was the first proof that Gervais could really do drama and be good in it).
Extras will probably always be underappreciated. But I think it’s Gervais’ best work and a culmination of the skills he possesses: being funny, making a point about something and moving beyond “having a laugh” to be dramatically effective.
In Derek, the skill Gervais uses best is having something to say about the treatment of the elderly, what it means to grow old and die, the notion of loneliness and what exactly the pursuit of happiness means to the individual. The existential aspects of Derek are its best traits (and yes, there will be a second season). The drama and comedy elements are more of a mixed bag. A second season may refine those more (as a second season did for parts of Extras).
While Derek will likely be seen as Gervais’ most ambitious leap, I think he stuck the landing better in Extras, which demonstrated his talents more aptly.
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