Derek (Channel 4), a care home set comedy with a mentally disabled lead character, is a strange show that feels quite distant from anything Rick Gervais has done before. There were three main problems with it: an inconsistent tone, a queasy sentimentality and lazily written, badly drawn peripheral characters. There were also some good things, such as the acting and some interesting main characters.
First, the tone, which swung back-and-forth too much. Sometimes Derek seemed to be a broad slapstick comedy, sometimes a humour-free sentimental drama, and at others almost a factual documentary. It tried to be too many shows at once. The full series introduced a character missing from the pilot, Derek’s friend Kev, a broad comedy pervert who sat uncomfortably alongside natural characters like Karl Pilkington’s Dougie and Kerry Godliman’s Hannah. Gervais’ much better previous show The Office mixed similar characters to an extent, but that show was written more smoothly and it didn’t seem as jarring.
One element of the tone that was consistent – unfortunately – was a nauseating and forced sentimentality. The final episode has Derek’s father suddenly show up from nowhere, without any foreshadowing in previous episodes whatsoever. Emotion should emerge naturally from the plot in a TV show; instead Gervais allowed a desire for sentiment to dictate the plot, and a need for an emotional end to the series to result in a sudden and contrived plot point.
The directing made the problem worse. It was really heavy handed. In one episode, the elderly residents of the care home Derek works in are shown in soft focus, before the scene dissolves into black and white images from their youth. It is a very forced way to provoke an emotional reaction. A more natural version could instead have the residents’ memories told through dialogue, and a better director could shoot the scene naturally and still make it engaging. Think of the documentaries that have the viewer crying with just a close-up of someone talking about something meaningful. The directing here in contrast seemed almost amateurish.
This mawkishness permeates every aspect of the show. In the last episode, Kev – a character who up until now had showed no intellect or talent for insight at all – says that in life there is only one shortcut that works ‘and that’s kindness’. That is really overt writing lacking in any subtlety. It is very maudlin. The last ten minutes of this episode featured a Coldplay song playing intermittently over the top – there’s no lazier way to try and provoke sentiment than a sad soundtrack. And for ten minutes!
Secondary characters in the show were also very problematic. In one episode, Hannah’s friend from school shows up and immediately passively insults Hannah. There is nothing to her character beyond nastiness. ‘Now I know why you’re not on Facebook,’ she says patronisingly about Hannah’s circumstances. Nobody speaks like that, in those circumstances. Even the most disrespectful people I have met made some attempt to hide their spiteful thoughts. But Gervais wants a scene were Hannah appreciates the value of her modest life, so he creates an unbelievable character that shows up and disappears forever.
He does the same thing in the first episode, introducing an upper-class government inspector; a penny pinching bureaucrat who says some ridiculous remarks about Derek and autism all so that Dougie can give a big speech to a round of applause (a very clichéd and overused film trope that has been mocked repeatedly in comedy films and TV shows). It is very lazy writing.
There are though some decent aspects to the show. The acting is very good, particularly from Pilkington and Godliman. The latter really deserves a career boost on the back of this show. Gervais seems to have a talent for finding outstanding actresses, or for getting the best out of them. And there are a few genuinely funny moments, which is to be expected considering Gervais is obviously a very funny comedian and writer.
But none of that is enough to make up for the show’s shortcomings. Derek would really have benefited from a strong script-editor to focus its tone and clean up the writing. It’s possible that Gervais needs a co-writer, as he had with The Office and Extras, in order to produce work of that calibre. He is apparently committed to making a second series. It would be better if he started something fresh – preferably with Stephen Merchant – because he is clearly a better writer than Derek would suggest.