There is one word that encapsulates the pilot of Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek, and it isn’t, as you might expect, “offensive”.
Instead it’s much worse: “disappointing”.
Even before it aired, Gervais’ show about a simple man called Derek who works in an old people’s home attracted criticism for making fun of the disabled – something that Gervais has been accused of quite a bit lately.
Gervais, obviously, vehemently denied that Derek was disabled. But that’s like making a cup of tea and trying to convince the world that it’s coffee because Derek, as portrayed by Gervais, is obviously handicapped. That’s not to say that it’s a cruel depiction – Derek is warm-hearted, loveable, and kind – but his portrayal lacks subtlety, to the point that it appears farcical.
Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man this is not, and it only highlights Gervais’ acting limitations. It isn’t offensive, but it also isn’t a million miles away from the kind of ignorant, wrist-slapping caricatures found in school playgrounds.
However, the real issue with Derek isn’t Gervais’ portrayal of the protagonist; its greatest crime is that it is, simply, dull.
The mockumentary format that Gervais pioneered in The Office has been done to death and, with the recent revival of the classic sitcom in the form of Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys, its use here just looks like creative laziness. There’s nothing here that The Office didn’t do first – and much, much better.
And therein lies the fundamental failure of Derek: as a comedy it isn’t very funny, and as a drama it isn’t very moving. Gervais has been able to deftly juggle comedy and drama in the past (Cemetery Junction springs immediately to mind), but Derek fails at striking either a humorous or weighty note.
What scant levity there is to be found here feels forced, and relies far too heavily on slapstick or the kind of rehashed “cringe” routines we already saw Gervais do – and again, much better – in Extras.
Even Karl Pilkington, who is never anything less than hilarious, puts in a dud performance as Derek’s best mate Dougie. Whilst they may be radio dynamite, Pilkington and Gervais have absolutely no on-screen chemistry and Karl’s delivery of Gervais’ poorly-written lines is just embarrassing.
The drama is equally as contrived, relying on cheap tricks and emotional blackmail. We are simply told what to feel, and that’s just lazy writing. You can set any kind of video footage to the melancholic sounds of Ludovico Einaudi and make it appear poignant, sad, and intrinsically meaningful, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Moreover, the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes. Kerry Godliman’s Hannah is just a straight cut-and-paste of Gervais’ previous women, and that archetype – just like the mockumentary format – is starting to show its age.
Ricky Gervais’ work over the past few years has dwindled in quality, and Derek might be the worst of the bunch. There was certainly potential, but perhaps what Gervais really needed was someone to bounce his ideas off. I’m beginning to suspect that Stephen Merchant was the real mastermind behind the success of The Office and Extras.