Earlier this summer, Netflix brought Arrested Development back from the dead and now, they turn their powers of resurrection to another, less known comedy character, a friendly English bloke, named Derek. Created by Ricky Gervais as a one-off character for The 11 O'Clock Show, Derek has always had a million dollar heart and ten dollar brain. On September 12th, all seven episodes went live on Netflix all over the world and Derek hasn't changed a bit. But is that a good thing?
From a single 3 minute sketch to a full series sitcom? Will Derek have what it takes?
In Part One, we focused on Arrested Development. Let's get to Part Two. Let's get to Derek.
There is an innate sense of innocence --of sweetness-- at the core of Ricky Gervais' Derek (both the show and the character) that may seem uncharacteristic to audiences only familiar with his roast-like award show appearances. The plot follows Derek, a sweet but, slightly dimwitted man-child (Gervais) who works at Broadhill, a home for the elderly by day and by night, watches You Tube videos of hamsters and other cute, cuddly creatures, much to his own delight.
"Just be nice. That's the easiest thing. Just be nice. That's why I is nice. Not cos I thinks it will gets me into heaven. I dunno... whenever I does nice things, I feel nice. And when I does bad things, I feel bad. And that's how I know." -- Derek
At its core, its a show about kindness, which is an extremely noble pursuit.
But it would be difficult to laugh at a Good Samaritan giving money to a homeless person. Right? To be blunt, kindness just isn't all that funny. The "feel good movie of the year" is rarely the funniest, if you catch my drift.
Not to say the show is totally without comedic merits. Karl Pilkington (Dougie) and David Earl (Kev) are often hilarious in the roles, playing the titular character's best mates. Their trip to the beach is the highlight of the first season, as the near claustrophobic sense of sadness that usually cloaks the series disappears. It's a slight, silly excursion (and perhaps, on its own, not laugh out loud funny) but, amongst the sorrowful tone of the show, it was a welcomed diversion. I'll admit, I like the characters of Derek far more than I like the show itself.
Gervais (who also wrote the show) relies on broad, almost campy villains that appear for one episode, are quickly vanquished and exit, never to be seen again. An early example is the Government Inspector who threatens to shut down Broadhill in the show's pilot. That example did not initially bother me. Yet, by the time the daughter of a deceased former resident shows up, looking for a missing family heirloom, it became almost too much. The world in which these characters exist feels too idealized. Even the aforementioned villains are idealized.
Am I calling Gervais a little bit lazy? Maybe. In a recent interview, he admitted that on Derek, unlike his previous masterpieces The Office, Extras or the under-seen film The Invention of Lying, he had to "paint with very large brush strokes". (Remember, I said masterpieces. I love most of Ricky's work.) To translate, he had to simplify things, dumb 'em down a shade or two. He no longer has the pressure to succeed that he must have felt working on The Office in the early days.
Is he resting on his laurels? Not exactly but, something has undoubtedly changed.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the cameo of the immensely talented Doc Brown, who plays a local hip hop artist who (no joke) after meeting Derek and the inspiring residents of Broadhill... he decides to write a rap song about his experience and then, performs it for all the old people. (I'm still not joking. That actually happens. In a show that was produced after 1992.) It felt like after 23 minutes of kindly old people, we were suddenly rocketed into an episode of Saved By The Bell. I mean, how culturally cringey can you get? It's a show that wants so desperately to be 'heart-warming' that is comes across as rather disingenuous.
Usually, Ricky Gervais writes with a partner, which has yielded wonderful results in the past. However, Derek was written by Gervais alone, perhaps giving some indication of how valuable the contributions of co-writers like Matthew Robinson or Stephen Merchant have been. But many would say, to give this show a negative review, you'd have to be a monster! It's just so sickly sweet and well-intentioned.
Derek has it's heart in the right place but so far, that place is not a consistently funny one.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.