Is he being callous or is he sincere? Is he genuine or is this just another attempt to poke fun at those who are less fortunate? Has he really got a heart and highlighting often-ignored social issues or is he just using his status and influence to exploit a twisted sense of humour?
These are questions I was asking myself when I read the previews for Ricky Gervais’ latest television offering, Derek. As a big fan of Gervais I of course was interested in Derek, and I’ve often had to defend my fandom for him because of his comments and actions on Twitter and in the press etc. in the past. But when I saw the trailers for Derek and the kind of character he was playing, even I had my concerns as to what he was hoping to achieve. I’ve watched his stand up shows, believe me I just wouldn’t put it past him.
Derek, as dismissive as it might be to say, is best described as The Office in a care home. Might be a lacklustre assessment, but there are comparisons and you would be forgiven for thinking it was being broadcasted on BBC2 in its mockumentary style. There’s even the token annoying, insensitive, sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed character Kev, mirroring The Office’s Chris Finch.
The strongest character is the long-suffering Hannah, the care home’s manager, who loves what she does for a living but feels very trapped and restricted by the red tape around her role in trying to keep the care home financially afloat. She genuinely cares for her residents and tries as hard as she can to look after them, even with the suits above her wanting to constantly cut corners.
And then there’s something that The Office never had: Karl Pilkington. Gervais has let his long-time writing partner Stephen Merchant go for Derek and substituted him for the ’round-headed Manc twonk’ (and his ex-radio show producer and best friend, let’s not forget). After going abroad idiotically in his last encounter with Ricky Gervais, Pilkington is now adding acting to his CV and plays the care home’s janitor and owner of the Worst Haircut in the History of the World, Dougie. He also cares about Hannah and the home, and when future of which was thrown into uncertainty in the first episode upon a finance-assessment visit from the council, Dougie showed himself to be a very fierce and passionate defender of his workplace and the residents. He’s another great creation of Gervais and Pilkington, for fans can see Dougie moans just as much as the guy playing him in does in real life.
And so onto Gervais’ character, the eponymous Derek. Derek works in the care home that the series is set in, thinks the absolute world of Hannah and loves to poke fun at Dougie and his hairstyle. He adores animals (something Gervais does in real life too), collecting autographs, loves being with and interacting with the elderly residents, and helping out around the home. Derek may have learning difficulties, but he is no way stupid.
If anyone was under the illusion that Gervais was using Channel 4 and Derek as a platform for being insensitive to the elderly and people with learning difficulties only needs to watch the scene at the end of the first episode. Even if the pet therapy scene doesn’t raise tears with Derek’s understanding of what a ball means to a dog and what animal interaction means to the residents, then perhaps the real gut-clincher is when the council attempt to test him for autism whilst assessing that ‘he is different’. Asking the council worker will anything change about him, will his lifestyle change, will he be hospitalised, will he have to do anything in his life differently; when the answers all come back as no, he fires back with the point, “then you don’t need to carry them out then, do you?” It’s a rare moment reminiscent of the stellar writing of the Office when it’s not about the comedy.
However the scene that left me in awe was the end scene of last week’s episode. Using my favourite Radiohead track Bones, Gervais reminded us of the harsh inevitable as the song played out over a montage of the residents’ youths compared to how they are living now, incorporating the lyrics of the song to illustrate what pretty much most of us are destined for. It was a moment of genius and heartbreak at the same time.
But for all its tender, comedic and emotional moments, I’m still left wondering during each episode, how a care home which is running on a shoestring manages to afford having a giant iMac in the lounge for the residents to use.
Derek is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays nights at 10pm, and subsequently various on-demand and catch-up channels.
Find out more about Derek at the Channel 4 website here.