Anyone who is a fan of Ricky Gervais (like me), the mad, cynical mind behind the United Kingdom’s The Office and one of my favorite TV shows ever, Extras, probably tuned in to Netflix last week when his newest series, Derek, became available for streaming.
As with his other works, Derek was written and directed by and stars Gervais. Derek (filmed in the now over-familiar documentary style) centers around an old folks’ home in the U.K. where 49-year-old Derek Noakes works as a caretaker. He works with the longtime director of the home, his best friend, Hannah (Kerry Godliman) and fellow caretaker Dougie (Karl Pilkington).
Derek is a definite departure from Gervais’ past works — his cynicism, and sometimes straight-up misanthropy, are hallmarks of the biting voice that made him famous. In this series, Gervais’ character is the opposite of all of that — he is the quintessential Good Samaritan, a seeming fool who, in the end, "gets it" more than any of us. He’s kind to the marginalized, doesn’t care about personal appearances, espouses that it’s "more important to be kind than clever or good-looking" and generally reminds the audience that we’re sacks of crap in comparison. However, the show slides quickly from sweet to cloying, and sometimes wanders into eye-roll territory.
Our protagonist is either simple-minded or learning-disabled — various media have described the character as autistic, but Gervais himself says that was not his intention. The question of whether Derek is simple or "slow" has garnered both praise and controversy. The character averts his eyes in social situations, appears to have no concept of social etiquette and speaks baldly, juts out his jaw and frequently brushes his greasy hair away, an apparent tic.
As someone with an autistic younger brother, I don’t take issue with portraying a character like Derek — his differences were never ridiculed by any decent characters, only those who are clearly meant to represent the ignorant, superficial masses.
If anything, it’s a cornerstone of the show that it doesn’t matter what is "wrong" (or right) with Derek — he’s an honest person with a good heart. Either way, Derek’s "holy fool" wisdom shakes and shapes those around him, inspiring them to follow in his innocent footsteps.
There are some amazingly funny moments throughout Derek. Pilkington was a standout for me as the dry, acerbic Dougie — here, we get some of Gervais’ trademark, rapier wit. Dougie is brusque, dry and straightforward, which turns out to be a nice antidote for the moments that were just a little too heartwarming for me — my heart occasionally felt smothered in all the warm fuzzies espoused by Derek and his compatriots.
I couldn’t help but imagine Gervais congratulating himself on his "simple wisdom" and guileless performance. When each character delivers more than one speech to the documentarians about how "we should all be like Derek," it was just too much.
Where some moments hit exactly the right note and brought tears to my eyes, like Gervais’ "Kindness is magic," speech (yes, seriously), there were others that were just entirely too sentimental for me to believe: Like in one episode, a young girl is aghast to be forced to do community service at the nursing home and within the span of the episode, she is completely altered and decides to continue volunteering even after her "sentence" ends. It’s not that this is entirely unbelievable, but I might have believed it more if they’d stretched the decision over a couple of episodes.
In another, an Alzheimer’s patient’s adoring husband asks, "Who else gets to fall in love 365 times a year?" I thought this sort of cliché was exactly the kind of fodder Gervais loved to hate, but here it is, irony-free.
Overall, Derek is worth the watch because the great moments outweigh the soppy, but, in my opinion, there are a few flubbed notes. Gervais is unfailingly incisive and witty, and there is a lot of truth and heart to this series, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of Derek was a little too saccharine. The heart is in the plot and characters — the speeches were like adding icing to an ice cream cake — so sweet I couldn’t taste anything else, and it made my teeth ache.