By Andrew Hendricks
A recent addition to the Netflix original series roster, Derek is Ricky Gervais's new mockumentary style film in which he plays an autistic elder-care worker who is loved by all and treats others with nothing but kindness.
Ricky Gervais and mockumentary comedy? Haven't we seen this before? And sure, a mentally challenged guy with a heart of gold is a noble premise—but it isn't exactly an original concept.
Yet, despite these two immediate red flags, Ricky Gervais brings an earnestness to this role that it is impossible to be cynical about the premise when you see how artfully and genuine the actors in this new series—not just Ricky Gervais—bring the show to heights now expected in the Golden Age of television.
Among the cast is Karl Pilkington, a name that will ring familiar to long-time fans of Ricky Gervais and his work. However, in this roll, it is refreshing to see Karl Pilkington as the levelheaded “everyman” handyman and friend of Derek rather than his oft-played role of the odd-notioned buffoon existing as the butt of some of Riky Gervais's meanest spirited humor.
In typical Gervais style, Derek is replete with Abbot and Costello-type humor, wimsy, sarcasm, sexual humor, and moments of beauty and reflection that would be manipulative if not so effective and earnest.
Gervais's character, though slightly challenged, is incredibly high-functioning, and always strives to make others happy, particularly the elderly in the home it is his job to care for. The co-star of the show, his coworker, Hannah, is a woman who has dedicated her life to this profession, and though she has resolute devotion to Derek (and he loves her), their relationship is much like a sweet kindergarten teacher and her doting student. Their friendship evokes some of the cutest moments in the show; for example, in one scene, the grandson of one of the residents is an attractive and friendly guy around her age. She tells Derek “He's gay, all the good ones are taken.” Gervais's Derek hops on this, wondering how she knows. Derek says he can go ask him for Hannah, to which she refuses nervously.
“I'll ask him if he's gay,” Derek says, “But I won't tell you.”
“No Derek, that's stupid. I want to know. I just don't want him to know that I want to know.”
Derek seems to digest this for a moment, and goes up to the attractive potential-bachelor and says: “My friend Hannah, she's gay, but she doesn't want you to know.”
This mockumentary-style comedy is one where, like The Office, Ricky Gervais plays a protagonist who appears not to entirely understand the world around him. However, unlike Gervais's anger-inducing portrayal of an incompetent mid-level manager, we never get the sense that Derek is oblivious to a wider, scarier, hurtful world—we are simply given a portrait of a hard worker, good friend, and kind individual who chooses to tune out everything except for good, interesting, funny, beautiful things.
This is a show that could have easily failed a hundred different ways, but it is clear Ricky Gervais poured himself entirely into the creation of this show, and the quality of this effort shines through. In Derek, Gervais has crafted the most heroic roles he and his friend Karl Pilkington have ever played. If you are interested in a modern comedy that makes you feel just a little better about all the crappy aspects of life we all go through, then give Derek a chance, and see the smug, pompous Ricky Gervais morph into the most likable fictional character you will ever encounter.