Life’s Too Short suggested that Gervais had forgotten how to make a coherent comedy programme.
It was an awkward mashing together of all his previous shows and, worse still, slandered the good name of Warwick Davis by unconvincingly painting him as an egomaniacal wanker, when in reality he is clearly very nice.
Here’s a picture of him with his wife and kids:
The quick turnaround between the icy reception of Life’s Too Short to Derek being on our screens, suggests that Gervais wanted to prove that he could still do the kind of scripted TV comedy that his whole unlikely A-list celebrity is based upon.
Derek concerns a man who, in the repeatedly stated opinion of Gervais, is not supposed to be a disabled man, but is in fact, to all intents and purposes a disabled man. He works in a care home and has a friendship/unrequited love for a fellow worker there called Hannah.
I have a couple of disabled relatives and I will say that he did get the haircut right, my uncle also goes for the Downfall Hitler look.
I actually don’t think Gervais did a terrible job with the character, but I never got past the stage of thinking ‘that’s just Ricky Gervais pretending to be disabled’, he’s no Chris Lilley when it comes to character immersion. The other problem is that there is nothing about the character of Derek that is particularly endearing or amusing in any way.
There are so many scenes that just add up to nothing. The Youtube pastiche ‘Hamster on a Piano’ goes on far too long and is just cringe. The attempts at slapstick are just leaden: him falling in the pond, him sitting on his dessert… This is from the man who wrote the scene where Chris Finch threw a shoe over a pub to prove he should have won a quiz; is he happy that this is the level he’s pitching things at now? Man falls in pond. Whoops!
Another strange aspect of Derek is that it marks the official acting debut of Karl Pilkington. This does add interesting further questions as to how far he is a comedic construct (even though he is just playing himself with a wig). I actually like that potential aspect of Pilkington; that he could be taking method acting to whole new levels that make Joaquin Phoenix look lazy.
The biggest disappointment about Derek for me was that it couldn’t even get to the end of the first episode without including a crying scene. One of Gervais’ underrated qualities as an actor is that he is probably one of the best onscreen criers. The “please don’t make me redundant” scene at the end of series 2 of The Office is unbeatable. The tearful monologue in the Big Brother house at the end of Extras is also memorable. Compare The Office (and Extras) which went through two series of build-up before their moment of emotional catharsis.
Derek is weeping before the first episode is through, when his favourite old person dies (even though she’s won a scratch card!). Where does the show go from here? If it goes to a full series will Derek weep at the bedside of a different old person every week?
I think the issue was that Gervais felt he had to attempt to show (in the least subtle way possible) that he wasn’t taking the piss out of disabled people. In order to cheaply trick everyone, he ends the pilot with this grand emotional display, with piano music that tells you how to feel (very sad is the answer). Compare that to the absence of sound or music when Tim goes off mic to speak to Dawn at the end of series 2 of The Office, which was more powerful?
I feel sorry for Ricky Gervais in a way, despite his huge success and hand in creating The Office; he has seemingly lost his ability to be immediately given the benefit of the doubt about his shows due to his increasing disregard for quality control. It is quite an indignity to have been forced to make a pilot for this, rather than going straight to series, especially since it didn’t even look that expensive to make.
A bigger question is, why did Stephen Merchant decline to take part in this programme in any way? Did he know it would be a bit crap? Was he busy? Is he doing his own sitcom pilot where he plays a gypsy-that’s-not-actually-a-gypsy?
A definite influence on Derek is Louis CK’s sitcom Louie, which Gervais has an (annoying) recurring role on. The camera-work and tone of Derek seemed to be Gervais making a stab at the kind of bleak, often scarcely-a-comedy tone that programme achieves. Unlike Louie, which weekly gives you bleak, morally complex situations and allows you to draw your own conclusions; the babyish didactic tone of Derek doesn’t compare. With an endless stream of talking heads saying “Derek is kind, his heart is in the right place”, “Derek’s just a laugh, he’s funny isn’t he?” not really.
The whole programme just reminded me of browning bits of chopped fruit.
That said, Gervais seems to be going forward with writing a full series. I still hope the programme is potentially salvageable, I find it difficult to entirely give up on Ricky Gervais, despite everything that has gone on.
I watched this show in good faith; even though I’d been lukewarm on all his recent output and after becoming increasingly embarrassed by his public persona that includes things like this:
Even David Brent would have thought was a bit much.