Ricky Gervais's most controversial ever character Derek arrived on TV last night in his primetime full-series debut. Was this compassionate, ground-breaking television or, with so much of 'The Office' template on display, a sign that Gervais has run out of ideas and just added Karl Pilkington in a wig?
It's a testament to his stamp on TV comedy that 'Derek' was instantly recognisable as 'classic Gervais' - 23 sweet minutes that created a distinctive tableau of life inside a small care home, a world of consistent internal reality where everyone's relationships were carved out and believable, from saintly manager Hannah's battles with the money-men to Derek's sweet spot for wanderer Kev.
Ricky Gervais has said that creating 'Derek' is the favourite thing he's ever done
Of course, Gervais created his blueprint to stunning effect with his despatches from Wernham-Hogg, and the legacy of David Brent and co were everywhere in ‘Derek’… Kev's macho asides checking that Tom was "doing Hannah" could have come straight from the sweet mouth of Gareth Keenan, Derek's self-conscious camera-searching/avoiding eye-shifts were straight from the Brent armoury, even the arrival of the money-men was borrowed from the narrative of Wernham-Hogg's threatened closure of the Slough department.
And the personal, to-camera chats, originally a parody of talking-head factual telly, are now such established Gervais territory, they've almost lost their lampooning element, particularly when the subject matter threatens to destabilise the comedy, which is what happened here.
What did you think of 'Derek' - cruel or compassionate viewing?
And here we get to the heart of the matter. In 'The Office', we had Dawn's despair about her professional and romantic lot. Compare this with Hannah's anguish about the lack of municipal money going into looking after vulnerable people… "It costs what it costs," she said. "If it costs more than some stupid person in a suit thought it would, it doesn't mean we're overspending, it means your stupid guess was wrong."
These are big topics and, suddenly, laughing at Karl Pilkington's wig, even though he tells us he got called "an egg with sideburns", doesn't seem so appropriate. Together with the loving montages of elderly people with their pets, and Hannah's defiance (an extremely affecting Kerry Godliman) in the face of the suits - "90% of care home patients die within six months of being rehoused... I’m not moving them" - Gervais gives notice of a call to arms.
Karl Pilkington plays Dougie - an unforgiving haircut, but a heart of gold
He’s made it clear he has a soft spot for carers, animals, compassion, generally, and it feels like those earlier 'Office' antics, miserably marvellous though they were, were Gervais’ warm-up for this broader, more serious landscape. The through-the-fingers spectacle of Keith sitting next to Dawn and silently eating a Scotch egg feels benign, almost pleasant, in comparison. Laughing and cringing simultaneously seems easy now. Laughing and pitying feels far more challenging. If we don’t know how to respond, it could be the fault lies within us, as we struggle to decant this TV ‘piece’ into a category that makes us feel comfortable.
Ricky Gervais has caused himself all sorts of trouble with his portrayal of Derek, largely because he refuses to attribute to his character any specific affliction, other than to say he is simply "naive and gullible" He says he gets to decide what his character's qualities are because he created him - which is a bit like Conan Doyle deciding that Sherlock Holmes is a fishmonger, however much like a detective he speaks and behaves. But picking hairs over the nuances of one character is, I think, missing a bigger point here.
Gervais also has the money, the time and a massive well of comedic goodwill on which to draw for his latest exertions, and to risk - see above. With his high profile on both sides of the Atlantic, he could be forgiven for cranking up an Office sequel, an Extras movie, or just staying in bed for a bit. The fact that he chooses instead to expend his singular resources to cast a light on an unglamorous, unsexy part of our community says a lot about his intentions.
What we are rewarded with instead are some top-notch performances and an important social discussion, lightly but movingly told. There are flaws, to be sure, as it strains to stamp its original print on our telly-watching psyche, but, with what he is trying to do, I think ‘Derek’ and Gervais deserve the benefit of the doubt.
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