Ricky Gervais has done it again with “Derek,” a tender-hearted comedy in which he plays the title character, a 49 year old autistic man who has made it his life’s work to be kind to everyone he encounters. I didn’t really know what to expect when I found it on Netflix the other night. I’d seen a few Tweets from Gervais, but other than that, I knew nothing. By the end of the first episode, I was enchanted.
“Derek” is set in a tiny senior care community in England, where Derek Noakes works as a kind of aid to the residents who love him like a son. Hannah (Kerry Godliman) is the manager of the community, an all-around saint to the residents and staff alike. Dougie (Karl Pilkington – yes, THAT Karl Pilkington) is the caretaker and best friend and roommate of Derek. And then there’s Kev (David Earl), an unemployed local who spends his every waking hour at the community, causing trouble and offending all.
The first season is seven episodes long, and short on plot. Rather, the series focuses on the relationships within this tiny world, and how Derek is the hub. Every character has many reasons to be bitter and cynical, but the show’s message is that kindness and community can and should win out over cynicism and bitterness.
Karl Pilkington, the perpetual butt of jokes by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is given a bit of revenge here, playing a role that seems custom made for Merchant, who is off doing “Hello Ladies,” his own comedy. And so it is that Pilkington plays the resident realist/curmudgeon/softie. He has no illusions about his place in the world, but lives committed to the people he calls his mates. He’s the conscience of the show, a one man Greek chorus, and if you liked him in “An Idiot Abroad,” you’ll take delight in takes on his life, his friends, and how the world works. He’s brilliant.
As the season progressed, I found myself drawn more and more to the lunacy of Kev, a middle-aged failure who spends his days drinking cheap beer, making crude jokes, and bragging about his sexual prowess. David Earl’s characterization of his loathsome character fleshes out what could have easily been a two-dimensional caricature and turns Kev into a fully formed character that you’ll actually come to love, despite himself.
But “Derek” turns on Gervais’s brilliant performance, which is understated and sly. Rather than hogging up all the attention, like David Brent in “The Office,” Gervais is content to set up the humor for others and revel in the quiet moments that are so tender that they brought me to tears.
Especially touching is the relationship between Hannah and Derek. She is Art Garfunkel to Derek’s Paul Simon, harmonizing beautifully with him, going tit-for-tat in the kindness department. Where Derek’s kindness might be shrugged off by a cynic as not costing much, considering where he’s coming from, Hannah shows us the sometimes steep cost of being selfless. She’s single and lonely when we first meet her, and even when she does find a boyfriend (the grandson of a resident), he takes a distant second to the community. Kerry Godliman, a veteran of English TV, is brilliant in this role, bringing depth and humor to what could have been a flat and one-dimensional performance in lesser hands.
Gervais, who wrote and directed each episode, has structured “Derek” just like “The Office,” employing the same plotless pseudo-documentary style that allows for character commentary and direct eye contact with the camera at times. Kerry Godliman’s Hannah, like Martin Freeman’s Tim in “The Office,” makes eye rolls into soliloquies. Even though “Derek” sometimes echoes “The Office” a little too closely (the drowsing octogenarians taking the place of droning copiers in the frequent mood shots, for example), the characters and the performances win out.
“Derek” borders on being sappy in each episode, but it’s a sin that’s more than absolved by the humor Ricky Gervais is famous for – namely humiliation. Jokes are set-up episodes in advance, and no one comes out unscathed, but Derek gets the last laugh here, as well. Where David Brent was clueless about being laughed at behind his back, Derek knows he’s being often laughed at and doesn’t care. “As long as they’re laughing,” he says. It’s worth noting that while Gervais takes a pounding for his cruel humor, each of his shows – “The Office,” “Extras,” and now “Derek” – all have a sweetness to them that is belied by the comedy of humiliation. Rather than laughing AT the characters, humiliation is more often used by Gervais to get to the core of the person at the butt of the joke. Humiliation, in the hands of Gervais, is character development.
Ironically, it’s Kev, in a rare and fleeting moment of introspection, who sums up his friend and the show itself. As he laments his tendency to always take the easy way out, he thinks of Derek and how glad he is to know him. “Derek took the best shortcut you can. The only shortcut that’s good. The only shortcut that works. And that’s kindness.”
In the age of “whatever,” it’s refreshing to see a comedy that generates its laughs from our fumbling attempts at connection and goodness rather than making fun of those same impulses. It’s also worth applauding Ricky Gervais for taking risks, rather than resting on the laurels of his past successes. He could very easily be coasting through another season of “The Office” or “Extras,” but instead, he has challenged himself with new characters and situations, filtered through the familiar structures of his other shows. It’s a bold career move, and I wish others would follow his example. “Derek” is a great show that deserves a huge audience, and Ricky Gervais deserves our thanks.