The global success of The Office gave Ricky Gervais carte blanche to follow his creative whims. In the 12 years since then he has served as a scorched-earth host at the Golden Globes and produced a hilarious podcast series, The Ricky Gervais Show. His TV programs Extras and Life’s Too Short (both aired stateside on HBO) have been classic Gervais: alternately funny and mean-spirited.
His newest TV series, Derek, begins streaming its entire first season on Netflix on Thursday. Much about the show will be familiar to Gervais fans. Like The Office, it’s shot documentary-style, with characters often breaking the fourth wall to address the camera.
Derek is also set in a workplace – but it’s a workplace rarely seen on TV.
The action unfolds at an assisted-living facility called Broad Hill, where Gervais plays a gentle, possibly mentally handicapped (Gervais has been dodgy about this point) 49-year-old factotum who loves animals and reality television. When the show premiered in the U.K. last winter, that premise was met with dread: Would the setup be merely an excuse to poke fun at the aging and disadvantaged?
The concern was understandable – see Gervais CV above – but misplaced. While far from perfect, Derek is an odd, sometimes beautiful little show with a sincere affection for its simple-minded main character and a genuine appreciation for older people.
It’s also quite funny, but the laughs often sneak up on you. There’s a story being told here; it just happens to be a sweetly comic one.
Okay, so sometimes Derek is a little too sweet. Gervais, who wrote and directed, relies a bit too heavily on a treacly, swirling piano soundtrack, and the show’s seven-episode first season includes more montages set to Coldplay songs than should be legal. But even those work fairly well, and some of the syrup is offset by Derek’s coworker Dougie – a bitter, easily inflamed janitor played by Gervais pal Karl Pilkington.
And – tone shift ahead – for all its lightness, the show is realistic about its setting: A Broad Hill resident dies in nearly every episode, robbing the kindhearted Derek of yet another friend.
Gervais, now 52, plays Derek as a jut-jawed mumbler, his eyes constantly darting from side to side. At first that portrayal feels gimmicky. But dang if it doesn’t grow on you – just like the show itself. Credit the comic for taking a chance: Derek is as far from David Brent – the imbecilic blowhard Gervais played on The Office – as you can get.
Given the patronizing way so many older characters appear in TV comedy these days, a show that treats the aged as real people – their wisdom and experience to be prized, not mocked – is a rare gem indeed. In Derek, Gervais, the king of cringe comedy, has created a funny show that’s deadly serious about the power of kindness.
The first season of Derek begins streaming to Netflix subscribers on Thursday. A second season has already been ordered.
If you watch Derek, let @austinjoconnor know what you thought of it!