In a week when a relative of mine passed away in a nursing home, I approached Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek (Thursday 12th April, 9pm, Channel 4) with an element of trepidation. My experience of nursing homes is a good one and my relative was always well cared for by the wonderful staff and was always the life and soul of the party. There has been a bit of negativity surrounding nursing home staff in the recent past, particularly due to the shocking Panorama revelations in the episode entitled “Undercover Care” from May last year, and I was worried (admittedly not knowing anything about Derek other than its setting) that we were going to witness a grotesque black comedy or an awkward point-and-laugh affair.
My basis for this fear was Gervais’ latest BBC offering, Life’s Too Short, which was a mockumentary about actor Warwick Davis and his dwarfism. Life’s Too Short received a lot of criticism in the press, partly because it was just plain unfunny, but mostly due to the awkwardness surrounding the absurd exaggeration of Warwick. The Independent‘s Robert Epstein put it best when he said “even if you don’t find its content degrading, it is simply shoddily derivative“. I simply wasn’t in the mood for a degrading or shoddily derivative comedy about an area I was particularly sensitive to. My scepticism wasn’t necessary however, and the programme, described by Channel 4 as a comedy-drama, was an incredibly warm affair.
The one-off episode follows the title character, Derek, a man with an unnamed condition that is similar (in my experience) to Asperger’s Syndrome, through his everyday life working in a nursing home. His day is a series of comic ups and downs, simplistic and repetitive conversation, and struggling to come to terms with death in his own way. Derek is surrounded by his friends, each one who he considers his favourite, and each one likes him back just for being him. His best friend and landlord, Dougie, played by the Idiot Abroad himself, Karl Pilkington, a typical worn-down-by-life caretaker, and Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman, equally realistic as the thoughtful boss of the home and object of Derek’s wide eyed affection, are the outstanding characters for me. Out of all of Gervais’ comic creations, across The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, The Ricky Gervais Show, and Life’s Too Short, the characters in Derek are without a doubt the most real and the most loveable.
Other than its undisputed warmth I do feel there is much to be improved on in Derek. The first thing is that it needs to work out what it is. Channel 4, as I said, describe it as a comedy-drama. When I hear that term I automatically think of Cold Feet, of Doc Martin, and of Fresh Meat. Not only are these three programmes (at their best) extremely funny, but they also are driven by compelling narratives that give the comedy a well-structured backbone. Derek sadly lacked both in the comedy department, and in terms of a fleshed out story.
Having said that, there were some high points in both comedy and story, and it was by no means completely flat. My favourite comedy moment was shortly after the advert break, when Derek and Hannah were at the pub for a quiet drink. A bunch of rowdy (downright horrible in fact) girls were name calling towards the pair of them. Hannah tells Derek to drink up and they head to the door. Hannah tells Derek to wait there, and heads back inside to head-butt the antagonist in the face, a move that was obscured to Derek. This particular moment, though perhaps similar to an Andy and Lou Little Britain sketch (where Andy attacks a bunch of bullies behind Lou’s back), was real punch-the-air stuff – it was a character acting out something that we would all have liked to have done in the same situation.
The programme did attempt story in a couple of places, including the loose and under explored ‘Hannah fancies Tom but Derek fancies Hannah’ thread, but the commendable effort was showing Derek’s reaction to the death of an elderly resident. It was commendable because it was Gervais trying out a scenario with a real beating heart to it, an important and truthful story with raw emotion. It didn’t quite work for me though, and as a Twitter friend of mine pointed out the music was a bit OTT. In my opinion a simple drone would have worked better; it would have punctuated the scene and gently provided a mood without shouting “YOU MUST NOW FEEL THIS PARTICULAR EMOTION!” at us.
The only other thing I am not entirely sure of is some of Derek’s mannerisms. I loved the character and the autistic innocence that was well-written, particularly in the ‘are you Secret Millionaire?’ and ‘Have you seen Hamster on a piano?’ There was nothing wrong with the dialogue, or the delivery for that matter. The thing that bugged me ever so slightly was his shuffle. I didn’t think it was necessary to walk with the shuffle. It wasn’t funny, and kind of detracts from the good stuff in the scenes. I also, controversially, wonder whether if somebody else were to play Derek, a series would work better.
For all its faults, and there were faults, I think Derek is a programme that is easily salvageable and I would love to see it come back. With more of a focus on story, and more moments of belly-laughter (like the pub scene), I think it could be a winner. I feel that much of the criticism surrounding it is due not to the quality of the programme, but due to an ingrained dislike of Gervais by some of the British press (case in point).