Let’s talk about Derek

by Matt Mecham on April 13, 2012

in Reviews

Last night, Channel 4 aired Ricky Gervais’ pilot “Derek“. The comedy/drama features Gervais as Derek; a man with learning difficulties who works in an elderly people’s home.

There is much discussion over whether it is right for Gervais to play a character with learning difficulties. Is it moral? Is he poking fun at those with such challenges? Of course much of this discussion was before most had seen a single second of the show.

For what it’s worth, I think Gervais is being far from mean-spirited. Indeed, Gervais imbues Derek with a sweet innocence; a kind of naive kindness that only children foster for others. But this is the problem for me. The first half was genuinely uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure how Gervais was playing the character. Gervais is David Brent. He’s Andy Millman. His persona is acerbic, vaguely obnoxious and superior. Watching Derek shuffle about with his lower jaw pushed out and his hair slicked forward was like watching David Brent aping around The Office or Andy Millman hamming it up for Maggie’s yucks.

Would Derek be better if Gervais had cast an unknown in the titular role? Definitely. But that’s not because Gervais is a bad actor; there were several scenes where he summoned up real emotion from his audience: the death of an old lady and being protected from mean jibes in a pub where stand-outs.

Karl Pilkington essentially plays himself which is no bad thing. His world weary view is perfect for Dougie the caretaker. The chemistry he has with Gervais made their friendship instantly believable. The scene on the bus where Dougie is driving the bus and Derek is winding him up with stupid questions could have been an outtake such is their real life relationship.

The acid test for a pilot is whether we want to see more and I definitely do. I hope to get past the discomfort of Gervais playing a character with so many quirks and ticks.
Derek’s friend Hannah is interesting. She left school at 16 and has been working at the care home for 15 years. She’s still waiting for her life to start but sticks close to Derek so she doesn’t have to. It’s an interesting dynamic and I would love to see how that develops especially as a potential love interest was introduced in the pilot.

What did you think? Do you think it should be given a chance to flourish or are you sick of Gervais already?



1 Johnathan Williamson April 13, 2012 at 8:48 am

First up, I haven’t actually seen the episode yet so I don’t have a particularly strong opinion at the moment.

I was one of those folk who thought the whole ‘mong’ debacle with Gervais was blown massively out of proportion, I speak as a father with a child who has what we believe at the moment to be Dyspraxia, essentially he is awkward, clumsy, disorientated often, slow to learn new things and generally considered to be 2-3 years behind his actual age. He’s registered disabled and receive the not insignificant ‘benefits’ that brings. Most people would probably circle him in the ‘mong’ category. So if anything, that particular incident/sideshow should have offended me. I seen a fantastic quote though recently which sums up my general feelings on the subject: “Being offended by something does nothing but show an acute inability to control your own emotions”.

So, I’m looking forward to the episode, for few reasons.

1. The number of people portraying the disabled in todays media in /any/ light, is minimal.
2. I genuinely believe Gervais has a great deal of compassion, and would only want the disabled/mentally impaired to be shown in a positive light.
3. His track record is fantastic, and Karl Pilkington as himself can only ever be good. I lost count the number of times I was brought to tears of laughter watching An Idiot Abroad.

Do I expect to find it uncomfortable to watch? Perhaps, I don’t suspect it will last terribly long though.

2 Matt Mecham April 13, 2012 at 8:53 am

Thanks for the reply Johnathan.

I thought the ‘mong’ thing was blown out of proportion too and I don’t really understand the reason so many hate Gervais beyond the fact that he’s successful and not ashamed to say what’s on his mind.

His characterisation of Derek was actually very good. It’s just that I’ve watched Gervais for years play the same character so you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing at the facial ticks (and indeed if you are, why would you?) or whether you’re supposed to feel compassion.

Towards the end of the pilot it comes together and you just feel compassion for the character. The scene in the pub was especially powerful, sad and touching.

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