Looking for something to watch over breakfast the other day, I decided I’d check out Ricky Gervais’ latest work Derek. I was expecting Gervais’ usual brand of “cringe comedy” exemplified by The Office and Extras – perhaps with additional cringe factor thanks to the character he was portraying — and not anything special. Over the course of the show’s few episodes, though, I was very pleasantly surprised to find what is, without a doubt, Gervais’ finest work to date — and not just from a comedic perspective.
Derek, lest you’re unfamiliar, centres around Gervais’ titular character, a middle-aged guy who may or may not be autistic and who works in a nursing home. Joining him in the main cast are his friends Dougie the caretaker (Karl Pilkington essentially playing himself) and Kevin the unemployed, along with Hannah — the manager of the nursing home — and the various old folks who they take care of together.
It’s one of those shows in which not a whole lot happens, yet what does happen always feels meaningful. In keeping with Gervais’ previous shows, it’s presented in “docudrama” format, with candid footage interspersed with talking head shots from Derek and the gang reflecting on what’s been happening. Over the course of the series, we get to know Derek and his friends extremely well, seeing them through both happy times and sad ones.
Derek is unsurprisingly the highlight of the show, initially appearing to be a bumbling, gurning simpleton but occasionally showing flickers of sharp wit — such as the sequence where he makes Kevin explain a dirty joke to him until it’s not funny any more, then explains to the camera afterwards that he did get it really, he just pretends not to because he knows it annoys Kevin.
More than wit, though, Derek is in possession of an incredibly compassionate soul — and he’s not the only one. Hannah is described by several characters as only caring about the happiness of others, even at the expense of her own, and she constantly wrestles with the path her life has taken, wondering if she might have done things differently if she hadn’t dropped out of school early. There’s a particularly awkward scene where one of her former peers at school shows up to bring her mother in to the home, but Hannah comes off best out of the whole exchange by the simple virtue of not having alienated everyone around her.
It’s an incredibly touching, moving show throughout — and not just at the times when one of the elderly residents of the nursing home passes on. There’s at least one moment in every episode where something very simple but utterly profound happens, and it moved me to tears on more than one occasion. The last episode in particular, in which a long-term resident of the home finally passes on and causes all of the cast to reflect on their respective life situations, is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time — particularly when we see the normally gruff, “laddish” Kevin break down in tears as he comes to the realisation that Derek “took the only shortcut that matters: kindness.”
Critics of the show have called it transparently emotionally manipulative, and perhaps it is — the liberal use of Coldplay on the soundtrack is testament to that — but personally I’m not sure there’s anything all that wrong with that. In Derek, Gervais has written an unusual but admirable character whom we could all do to observe the positive traits of; he’s also crafted a show that is enjoyable, eye-opening and which encapsulates the philosophy of “don’t judge a book by its cover” very neatly. It’s well worth a watch — just have the tissues handy.