I admit, when I saw the promo pics for Derek, specifically Karl Pilkington in that god-awful hairpiece, I thought, “Oh God, what ridiculous (ricky-diculous?) project has Ricky Gervais got going now?” I didn’t think much of it, but then it started getting rave reviews.
I’m happy to say my first impression was completely wrong. And why should I expect lowbrow, over-the-top, cheap gags from Ricky Gervais? Didn’t Andy Millman’s journey in and out of fame have heart? And Mark Bellison fabricating the afterlife at his mother’s deathbed so she could die without fear? Gervais’ writing has always had heart, but none of it as much as Derek.
Gervais calls it a sitcom, and maybe it is, but the humor is either subtle or spliced between scenes that are largely dramatic. It’s a serious look at the realities of working in an old folk’s home; how the elderly are treated by society, family, and government; treatment and popular opinion of mental handicaps; treatment of animals; and so on. Gervais’ views come on strongly, but not in an abrasive way. Some of you may have been offended by The Invention of Lying, but offense isn’t such a bad thing as long as it doesn’t turn you off to the point where you can’t see the other person’s perspective. However, Derek takes a different approach. (You’re not going to be offended by Derek unless you find writing Twat on a sea crab too rude.) The “offense” hits you deeper because it shines a light on the things we avoid because they make us feel uncomfortable, even though we know it’s wrong to turn away. You could say it’s television’s moral judgment day. It won’t offend you: it will wake you up.
Stylistically, it’s a sequel to the office because it’s another fictional documentary, but none of the characters have that David Brent level of deception and ego. You don’t have to sort through motives and subtext here.
You have to hand it to Gervais as a director, too. I can only imagine how much coaxing (and conning) he had to do to get Karl Pilkington to play his part so well. Pilkington seems a natural in the role, perhaps because it’s written for him, but I have no doubt that there was some serious directing done to get to that point. I mean, if one of your actors thinks that you’re the only director in the world who shoots a script out of sequence, you’re basically starting from square one, aren’t you?
Anyway, as someone who’s seen everything Gervais has made, I have to say I really think that it might be the best show he’s done, and it’s definitely the most important show he’s done. If you don’t believe me, at least watch The Making Of (It doesn’t really give anything away), even if you’re just watching it to see Karl Pilkington and Ricky Gervais argue about Corn Flakes.