Despite its promise as a new and refreshingly quirky comedy-drama, Derek, aired as a one-off last night on Channel 4, is a reversion to type in the worst way possible for Ricky Gervais. Populated by thinly-veiled stereotypes that stumble through an unconvincing narrative, it was a resoundingly unfunny production by a funny man whose comic Midas touch appears to be deserting him.
The eponymous character is a sweet and innocent man who works in an elderly persons’ home as a care assistant and is hopelessly in love with his colleague, Hannah (Kerry Godliman). Other than her, his only friends, it seems, are the senile and deaf old people he looks after and the establishment’s misanthropic janitor (Karl Pilkington).
We are immediately made aware however that Derek is not ‘normal’, as he has some kind of learning difficulty or mental health condition. Whether his idiosyncratic behaviour and strange mannerisms are supposed to provide some kind of comedic counterpoint or empathy to the docility of the residents is unclear. What is clear is that we are in the familiar territory of Gervais’ brand of offensive humour, based upon a series of stereotypes that are supposed to be endearing.
In essence Derek repeats that same and tired line from Gervais, that by revealing a human quality in his characters he is actually poking fun at the bigotry and prejudices of us, the audience, when in truth he is doing little other than indulging his own.
Admittedly, some of Derek’s lines and childlike traits are quite funny. The interplay between him and Hannah is genuinely touching at moments, brought out by a delicate delivery. But the fact remains that the humour is entirely premised on Derek’s ‘abnormality’. Indeed, Gervais’ acting is akin to somebody in a pub doing an impression of a disabled person: pure caricature, and lacking any real perspective of a person in that situation.
You would think comedy based on mocking disabled people had been consigned to a cringe-worthy and forgettable past. Sadly recent programmes like Little Britain and Come Fly With Me confirm the opposite. The only difference here is that Gervais tells us it is OK as he is being ironic and because the characters in question are likeable. In the end this faux sentimentality, which fails to challenge the stereotypes it depends upon, is no substitute for good scripting.
The same goes for all of the characters in the pilot who, cast in the mould of Gervais’ archetypes, are purposely pathetic and defined by their defects. Allowing for little complexity or colour, they are two-dimensional – but ‘sweet at heart’. And of course that must make us want to like them – surely?
Hannah, while sympathetically played by Godliman, is almost a carbon copy of Dawn from The Office: a fundamentally good woman resigned to a life of dreary dissatisfaction yet dreaming of escape, incomplete because she lacks a man. Arguably the most offensive portrayal is that of the older people at the home, who really are nothing more than grey props to the protagonists – a powerful statement that says a lot about the prevalence of ageism in society.
The format of this pilot episode, essentially based on the formula of The Office, is similarly staid. The candid asides from the main characters strip away any of the potential drama as the flow is broken by the open-heart bare-alls. You feel you know what the characters are going to say straight away; it is boring and predictable.
Perhaps it is too early to give a damning verdict after one episode. After all, it wasn’t until its second series that The Office actually captured people’s attention, never mind their hearts. And it took a gradual build up of Maggie and Andy’s relationship, their hopes, dreams and fears before Extras reached its truly touching crescendo.
If he wishes to add to that collection of dust-gathering Baftas with future episodes of Derek, then Gervais will need to do more than simply recycle old characters, themes and formats. More importantly he will have to learn that it’s not OK to make fun of old and disabled people, even if he thinks doing so makes him more intelligent than everybody else.