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Ricky Gervais and 'Derek': A Defence

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The Office is one of the great artistic works of the 21st Century. It was the Waiting for Godot of television comedy, a radical reinvention of the genre that will probably never be equalled. Weighted with a deadpan poeticism somewhere between Christopher Guest and Kafka, it is a staggeringly textured study of class, ennui, self-delusion, laughter, companionship, solitude and the importance of work. Its anti-hero, David Brent, joins Messrs Partridge, Fawlty and Mainwaring in the canon of misunderstood, quixotic, middle-English dreamers. It is the sort of show that makes you proud to be British.

Extras, Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant's follow-up, was a searing, complicated fable about fame, ambition and loyalty, and the sourest, sharpest satire of show-business since The Larry Sanders Show. (The best since Extras, for what it's worth, is Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback - it is bleakly magnificent and, like Human Remains, the sort of one-series wonder that commands an almost Masonic solidarity amongst its followers).

Those who've been on a film or TV set may well have wondered what a lonely, Sisyphean existence the extra must lead: seen but not heard, they stand around, make hours of small talk with strangers, are herded back and forth like cattle, and can only eat once everybody else has. The pronounced, shifting hierarchy of the film set is a lovely metaphor for the hierarchy of life, and Andy Millman's ascent is a cautionary one. Everyone will have their favourite cameos (David Bowie; Ian McKellen; Daniel Radcliffe; Ronnie Corbett), but the Les Dennis episode is the tragicomic apogee of Extras and, outside of The Office, the finest half hour of Gervais' career to date.

Life's Too Short, Gervais and Merchant's much-anticipated third TV collaboration after a dabble in film, is the closest they've had to a dud. Though a nice conceit gamely played by Warwick Davis, it is difficult to see Life's Too Short as more than a Frankenstein's monster of Gervais' previous work: Warwick's speech patterns and exasperated looks to camera are almost identical to Brent's; the potted-career-satire of the celebrity cameo has become a bit paint-by-numbers (though Liam Neeson was wonderfully dour); Warwick's assistant and accountant are basically Maggie and Darren Lamb, minus the pathos; even Barry, Les and Cheggers (all revelations in Extras) are reappropriated and dumbed down. It feels altogether less sophisticated, and the subtle visual gags (like Warwick throwing his trousers against a background loo window while his assistant talks to an estate agent) are to be cherished amongst the funny-at-first, repetitious pratfalling (like Warwick falling out of his car for the tenth time). Sprinkle in private jokes nicked straight from the podcasts and the co-creators' cameos as themselves (which bottle the faux-mean-spiritedness of Gervais' public persona), and the result is a moveable feast gone stale and cold. This is, very much, their difficult third album.

Derek, which comes out on DVD this week, is perhaps the bravest move of Gervais' career so far. Chris Rock once said that it takes serious balls to do comedy on stage as subtle as Gervais' early stand-up: it takes even more balls to make a sitcom as sincere as Derek. It is an anti-Life's Too Short, a gentle chamber piece that sheds his usual chrysalis of irony. The acrid moral wasteland of showbiz has been replaced by the cosy, death-around-the-corner altruism of an old people's home, and Derek himself is Gervais' most generous character to date - an affectionate, deceptively acute marvel: his performance takes a bit of getting used to and some argue the part should have been given to a 'better actor' (a Peter Capaldi, for instance), but I disagree: it is a perplexing performance that suits a profoundly personal show (half of Gervais' family work in care) and it's revealing that Gervais wrote this, his most understated work, on his own as I always assumed Merchant was the one who reined him in.

The characterisation is complex, if muted. Derek's fellow carer Hannah (an enchanting Kerry Godliman) is the warm, grounded Tim figure. Derek adores her, as she does him, but Gervais resists the fairytale temptation to bring them together. Instead, she has a relationship with Tom (Brett Goldstein), who initially, intriguingly, is mean to Derek and comes across as a bit of a prick, but once they're together and she keeps forgetting date nights, their romance is left (deliberately?) underdeveloped. Derek's other friends are no-nonsense, handyman-of-the-people Dougie (a surprisingly convincing Karl Pilkington) and crass perv Kev (Gervaisian muse David Earl), with whom Derek channels the same, slightly wearisome "which would you rather" badinage that Gervais disciples will have heard countless times on Extras or podcasts. We must also remember the residents, a genteel community of non-complainers living in a shadow-mesh of each other's memories. Derek is a lovely character, but I did find the last episode's talking-heads montage, in which they bathe Derek with praise and Dougie wishes he could come back as him in another life, a bit too hagiographic. More interesting is the self-loathing Kev reveals in his talking-head and the qualified optimism of the Doc Brown character's rap.

Derek is genuinely life-affirming. How many sitcoms capture the quiet, gradual, dignified, terrifying, wistful, relief-flecked prospect of death? Of recent comedies, only Jo Brand's masterful Getting On comes close. The photo montages of the elderly residents looking back on their lives are almost unbearably moving. In the pre-series pilot broadcast in April last year, there is an awful moment of dramatic irony, heightened by the mockumentary format, when Derek comes back from a trip into town with lottery tickets for a favourite resident, who has died while he's been out. What follows - through-the-door glimpses of Derek putting her hand on his head; the "kindness is magic" recollection; Derek's unguarded, tear-blotched candour - is superlative, achingly sad television. There's something very affecting about a crying Ricky Gervais (a rare exception is the overwrought scene in his film The Invention of Lying at his mother's bedside, which has no build and comes rather out of nowhere). The pitiful scene in The Office where Brent begs Neil not to make him redundant and Andy Millman's virtuoso rant about fame in the Celebrity Big Brother house are glorious syntheses of Gervais the actor and Gervais the writer. But in Derek, it's even more touching. The final shot of the series, reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption's, is a rapturous, knock-the-wind-out-of-you delight, though surely former XFM DJ Gervais could have picked a song other than Coldplay's Fix You (released 2005) to go over the top of it.

Good old Ricky Gervais. He can come across as a bit of a pompous arse - on chat shows; at American awards ceremonies; baiting Christians on Twitter - but he is the closest we have to a comedic poet laureate and Derek, far from mocking disability, is so sensitively written and imbued with such goodness that it could be shown in schools.

An interviewer once put it to Joseph Heller that, since Catch-22, he hadn't written anything nearly as good. Heller replied: "No, but neither has anyone else." The same could be said of Gervais and The Office (even if Gervais implies so himself - he tweeted this exchange as "perfect"), and he won't better it. But with Derek he has plumbed unprecedented emotional depths and reminded audiences how sweet, understated and thoughtful he can be. Please watch Derek as soon as possible.

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