Ricky Gervais is clutching at straws. There’s precious little other way to see Derek, the comedian’s latest series that arrived this week on Netflix after a TV airing in the UK at the start of the year. Take its seventh and final episode, whose cold open consists entirely of a “funny” animal remix YouTube video watched and mimed to by the eponymous character, a potentially autistic 50 year-old care worker in a retirement home. Any humour the sequence might have is derived from another source entirely; the sole original addition is Gervais’ face, gazing at the camera in the awkward vein of The Office with a new hairdo and a clenched jaw. What an apt embodiment of the series as a whole that one scene makes: like it, this new effort amounts to little more than a rote reliance on old material.
Derek plays not just like a show that isn’t spawned from the same mind behind some of this young century’s finest such exemplars, but by one who hasn’t seen them.
The archetypal British sitcom, Derek plays not just like a show that isn’t spawned from the same mind behind some of this young century’s finest such exemplars, but by one who hasn’t seen them. And perhaps, in a sense, that’s because it’s not: absent here is Stephen Merchant, Gervais’ oft-unsung creative partner who—judging by The Invention of Lying, for one, which Gervais also wrote and directed separately—deserved far more credit that ever he got for their material’s success. Across these seven episodes, perhaps nothing of Gervais’ back catalogue comes to mind more clearly than Stephen Fry’s scene in Extras: “I dunno, wigs and silly glasses, bit undignified for men of our age, don’t you think? Looks a bit desperate, that’s all I’m saying.” He spoke, of course, of When the Whistle Blows, Gervais’ character’s critically-derided sitcom; the sharp satire of that show-within-a-show seems entirely forgotten here.
As much as Gervais may be unironically embracing the very same sitcom clichés he and Merchant essentially redefined with The Office and excessively lampooned with Extras, the furore that greeted the idea of a show ostensibly centred on mental disability—not unlike the same controversy that arose around Life’s Too Short—attests the provocative aims of his post-Golden Globes career. “I think he’s hilarious” is what the home’s administrator Hannah says of the show’s namesake; the question, in terms of offence, is whether we’re laughing at or with Derek. The answer, before we can even begin talking about propriety, is that it’s neither: this is a woefully unfunny undertaking, its precious few laughs those that come directly copied from other Gervais works.
Derek is like a poorly chosen Greatest Hits selection of Gervais’ TV career, as picked by someone with no real understanding of what’s always worked with his material.
An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show star Karl Pilkington is the best example of that; he plays Dougie, the home’s caretaker, though it’s less a performance than it is a play to the camera with a scripted take on his out-there opinionated thoughts. Hannah, likewise, is little more than a version of Extras’ Maggie, albeit a slightly sharper one. Her ailing romantic life mirrors that of the earlier character, and offers the same conduit to the same on the idea of loneliness. It’s an arc not without its successes, but they’re all successes we’ve seen before, and in funnier forms. Derek is like a poorly chosen Greatest Hits selection of Gervais’ TV career, as picked by someone with no real understanding of what’s always worked with his material.
In the mockumentary format, senselessly employed seemingly as a matter of course; in the absurd questions and sideways glances swiped directly from The Office; in the actual employment of the line “Are you ‘avin’ a laugh?” without even a trace of self-awareness; in the dreadfully unfunny, despairingly juvenile “humour” of one reprehensible character: in almost everything, Derek is a comedy disaster, a desperate clutching at the easiest, most obvious laugh available. It’s little surprise, then, that Gervais should exploit his character for easy drama too, turning the maudlin music to eleven and trying trite, tearful confessionals no fewer than four times across these seven episodes. Base sentimentality is the last bastion of this man whose shtick has long worn thin; if not for the reasons expected, Derek is offensively exploitative indeed.