ALL 4 TV REVIEW – DEREK (2013 – 2014)
Created, written and directed by: Ricky Gervais
Producer: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Kerry Godliman, David Earl, Karl Pilkington, Brett Goldstein, Colin Hoult, Holli Dempsey, Ruth Bratt, Arthur Nightingale, Doc Brown, Joe Wilkinson etc.
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So, let’s address the elephant in the room with my review of ALL 4/Netflix bittersweet comedy, Derek. Is it acceptable for a person to seemingly inhabit the character of someone who could be perceived to be mentally challenged or disabled? Not forgetting, the person is a successful TV writer/actor, Ricky Gervais. After all we’re in a progressive age where it is right to be sensitive of perceptions and reactions to the representations of people of colour, religion, race, heritage and mental capacity. Is it in poor taste for Ricky Gervais to ultimately, get seemingly cheap laughs out of a gurning, simple man?
Well, on the surface and initial watch Derek, could be deemed offensive for reasons of poor taste. However, having watched series one, two and the final hour-long special for the third time, I have decided that, while it may have puerile and childish humour, Gervais has created a positive, and in some cases, heroic role model who promotes kindness to the elderly, animals, friends and basically everyone, whether they are horrible or not. The comedy and pathos derive not simply from cheap shots, but, organically from a set of outsiders and forgotten people inhabiting a care home. Lastly, Gervais is a talented actor and while he’s no Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), his character of Derek Noakes is a genuinely fine human being worth spending time with.
Moving past the controversial issues of taste the most important question remains: is Derek funny? Well, it is both funny and very moving, encompassing themes relating to life, death, grief, romance, love, redemption, depression and memory. Set in a care called Broad Hill it features a collection of disparate ensemble of characters who are existentially trapped within their day-to-day lives. These include hard-working Hannah (Kerry Godliman), gruff handyman, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), alcoholic wastrel, Kev (David Earl), and the titular, Derek. Furthermore, the care home becomes a haven for characters doing community service such as Vicky (Holli Dempsey) and of course the elderly residents who are cared for at Broad Hill.
Shot in Gervais’ often used mockumentary style, each episode unfolds in a gentle slice-of-life style as the Broad Hill employees go about their business. A common theme running through the series is the pressure the staff, notably Hannah, find themselves under looking after old people who have been dumped by their family and society at large. Moreover, the children or grandchildren of the residents are mostly represented as greedy, callous or self-absorbed. Gervais has commented that the show is a tribute to family members who worked in care homes and Derek succeeds in that context.
In representing the working classes and societal outsiders, Derek also works very well. I’ll be honest there is some easy humour to be had from the sexual perversity and drunken antics of Kev, portrayed with greasy acumen by David Earl. However, in Season 2, Kevin’s sad decline comes into focus as his alcoholism causes his health to fail and the friends he has alienated have tough choices to make. Nonetheless, the comedic interactions between Pilkington, Gervais, Earl and Kerry Godliman are priceless. These, plus Brett Goldstein as Hannah’s boyfriend, Tom, are all gifted performers and they shine throughout the episodes.
Gervais faced much critical controversy when Derek was first released. But having watched it again I actually think this was undeserved. Derek is not a figure of fun but rather a complex human being and richly empathetic character. If you find it offensive or do not enjoy Gervais’ performance then I understand that. Ultimately though, the series has some childish humour such as characters writing obscenities on crabs at the seaside, Dougie’s stupid hair, and Kev crapping himself at a staff meeting. However, it also has some fine comedic set-pieces as occurs when Derek, Dougie and Kevin put on a play about Duran Duran at a talent night. Plus, the scene where Kev and Derek try and sell their autographs of “famous” people is pure comedy gold.
Overall, Derek is a life-affirming comedy full of eccentric characters on the fringe of society. Somehow, they all band together to create this weird dysfunctional but very caring family. It’s a show about life, death, gain, loss and the human spirit. Moreover, through Derek’s homespun philosophical musings we get a lot of simple, yet effective life lessons. Yes, it’s full of toilet and school-playground humour, and at times is really mawkish and sentimental, but it is also full of heart and poignancy all performed by a fantastic ensemble cast.