All seven episodes of Derek’s first season debut on Netflix at midnight Eastern on Thursday.
Ricky Gervais plays the title role in Derek, a seven-part British series that he also wrote and directed. Not since M. Night Shyamalan’s last speaking role in an M. Night Shyamalan movie has there been such a glaring example of a performance that would not have survived the final cut if the actor were not also behind the camera, choking up in appreciation at this soul-baring example of the thespian’s art. Derek is a 50-ish care worker in a struggling, underfunded retirement home, and he’s selflessly devoted to his job, though he’s so helpless and childlike that the line between him and the residents often blurs. When he’s not shuffling around the home, doing his chores and spending time with the lonely old people, Derek expends his time and energy on random acts of kindness toward animals, such as picking up a worm and treating it to a drink of water, in case it’s thirsty. “Is that his head?” he wonders. “I’ll dip both ends.”
Mourning a resident who’s died, Derek recalls her telling him that it’s more important to be kind than to be clever or good-looking. It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart, and so has the show. It does not undersell either Derek’s capacity for kindness or his lack of cleverness. Gervais has a handful of greasy-looking hair combed across his forehead, he holds his body in a hunched-over position, he’s dressed like a shut-in on laundry day, and he frequently stares into the camera in what seems meant to be awestruck, open-mouthed wonderment. (Yes, this is another “mockumentary”-style show.) Derek’s actual mental condition is meant to be ambiguous. When a penny-pinching villain drops by to suggest the home be shut down, he asks if Derek has ever been tested for autism. Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the woman who runs the place, replies indignantly that there’s no need; Derek isn’t autistic, she says, he just seems that way because he’s too good for this cruel, judgmental world. Hannah, who’s the only person on view who’s clearly both kind and fairly mentally agile, keeps talking Derek up to an unseen interviewer. “He’s got a heart of gold,” she says. And even though he hasn’t had an easy time of it in his life, “I’ve never seen him feel sorry for himself.” She also insists, far less believably, “He’s just funny. I think he’s hilarious.”
In the last 10 years or so, nobody on television has shown a more heroic devotion to comic ruthlessness than Ricky Gervais. So maybe it’s not so surprising that, when he decides to go for a change of pace and demonstrate a little sweetness and light, he swings too far in the extreme opposite direction. Still, it’s pretty amazing—like, “Music Of The Heart, a film by Wes Craven” amazing—that the man who gave us that scene in Extras in which Kate Winslet talked (cynically, hilariously) about wanting to make a Holocaust film (because it was a sure shot at an Oscar nomination) now wants to give us this, with his tongue nowhere near his cheek. His own performance is never convincing—you look at him and want to shout, “Jesus, man, I don’t vote for the Emmys, but if I could, I’d give you one if you’d just close your mouth!”—and it’s just one piece of a big gooey pile of treacle.
The nursing home is like a sanctuary from Mordor, and the care workers and their grateful charges are practically the only people left alive who still have their souls. If they venture outside, they’re likely to run into people like the mean girls at the pub who make fun of Derek. (“Check out that poo-colored jacket!”) Even letting in people from the outside is risky; they may appreciate the value of what they’re seeing and be reborn, like the young girl who does some volunteer work and cries in happy disbelief when Hannah awards her “10 out of 10 for effort,” but they’re more likely to be grasping vultures, like the woman who visits her mother in the home, apparently just so she can talk greedily about how much she’s looking forward to inheriting her wedding ring when she dies. (You get the feeling that if the visit wasn’t supervised, she’d pull out a cleaver and a Ziploc bag and go all Robert Durant on Mom.) After each encounter with a “normal” person from the outside, Hannah talks to the interviewer about how she can’t wait for the chance to spend some more time with Derek, and even with his weirdo co-workers, Dougie (Karl Pilkington, wearing a fringe of hair around his bald pate) and Kevin (David Earl).
Despite its high sap content, Derek is still supposed to be a comedy, and Gervais finds the same things funny that he always has: demonstrations of extreme loutishness and stupidity. For the most part, he’s content to farm the actual jokes out to Earl—whose character is the kind of guy who visits the library and takes the copy of Amateur Photography into the public restroom with him, for a good wank—and Pilkington, whose aggrieved blithering has more dignity here than it does when he’s not supposed to be playing a character. (Pilkington gets to sum up his worldview when he surveys the scene at the nursing home and muses, “I don’t know at what point you can say life has ended, ’cause some of ’em don’t move.”) But Derek never feels more at home with itself than when it’s most maudlin.
The season finale includes a sequence with an old man whose wife no longer knows who he is, so he gets to reintroduce himself every day. “People see a couple of doddering old fools caught in a time warp, waiting to die,” he says. “But I see a beautiful young girl from Dublin who wants to spend the rest of her life with me. I win.” Shameless as this is, it’s one of the moments that’s most effective in its shamelessness, because it’s one of the few scenes where one of the older characters gets to say what’s on his mind—on a subject other than Derek’s saintliness. Most of the time, the residents are treated as window dressing, silent props to be exploited. Part of the show’s intended theme is that most people ignore the old and don’t recognize there are riches inside them, but when Gervais films the residents sitting around the home, looking like discarded husks, and then throws in film clips showing them when they were younger, he doesn’t illuminate anything about their lives, he just makes it seem sad that they got old. Derek is pretty sad from top to bottom, but not for the reasons its creator intended.