by: Michael Shields
Ricky Gervais busts out of his comfort zone to polarizing results in his latest, Derek…..
“It is a show about kindness” – Ricky Gervais
I can think of few other comedic performers that are as polarizing as Ricky Gervais. I am not sure if it is solely because of the way he comes off at times – crass, arrogant, and often downright rude. Or, if it is the fact that he unabashedly proclaims his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – at every turn possible. Maybe it’s just that squeamish grin of his, and the know-it-all tone he projects. Whatever it may be, he doesn’t always rub everyone the right way. What is indisputable, however, is he is a gifted comedian, who has under his belt a slew of impressive television projects that are pretty damn genius.
Derek, his latest project ((Available NOW on Netflix.)), is clearly his most ambitious yet. And the reason for this is that he isn’t just trying to have a laugh, he is going for the heart. It is an enormous departure for Gervais, in that he plays an autistic character ((Gervais stops short of using this term, but I see no reason to dance around the fact.)). For the role he undergoes a complete transformation. He pokes out his lower jaw, his mouth remains agape with his teeth exposed, his hair is oily and unkempt and one of his many nervous tics is to brush it to the side nervously. Gervais plays the titular character, Derek Noakes, slightly hunched over, his eyes darting away from eye and camera contact, and not everyone is pleased about it.
Critics abound have been chastising Gervais, proclaiming this portrayal of a disabled man as insensitive, politically incorrect and insulting. He has been called a bigot, a bully, and hateful. Strong words, and unfitting in this case. Claims such as this make you wonder if those roaring in anger have even seen the show. If they have they would have seen that Derek is the heart of the show, its hero. His kindness and positivity is the foundation the show is built upon, and the only ones who dare mock him are clearly depicted as the villains.
All and all it’s an impressive performance by Gervais, highlighting his range. It is a brave role to tackle ((Oh, the many critics of his performance are going to cringe at my use of the word “brave” there!)), one he handles with tact. The fact of the matter is Gervais isn’t mocking anyone. Ultimately he is championing the mentally disabled, furthering their God-given ((Wink, wink.)) right to be productive members of society along with the rest of us – something critics of his performance are completely missing. There is one poignant moment in the second episode of the series ((There is only 7 episodes, but a 2nd season has been ordered up.)) that sums up Gervais’s ambition for the character of Derek, which drives home his intentions. When bureaucrats visit the nursing home, concerned about budget cuts, one asks Derek if he would mind seeing a doctor to be tested for autism. Derek, precociously, asks “If I am autistic, would it change me in any way? Would I be the same person?” The answer is of course yes. “Don’t worry about it then,” he tells the humbled bureaucrat. It doesn’t matter, that’s the point. Derek is a good person, that is what matters, and that’s essentially the theme of the show – in an ideal world ((Represented by the nursing home here – Broadhill Retirement Home.)) it should be inconsequential what your situation in life may be – the most important thing is to simply be kind.
The character of Derek is the soul of the show, and is hardly used for garnering laughs. There are laughs however, plenty in fact. They come in the packaged duo of Derek’s two best friends, Kev (David Earl) and Dougie (Karl Pilkington). Kev is as unpolished as they come. Obsessed with the perverted and all the crumbs that fall into the sub-heading lowbrow, Kev’s brand of potty humor is abrasive, but a nice change of pace for some of the heavier topics of the show. Dougie is the home’s caretaker, and often the voice of reason. He is content with his place in the world, as lowly as many may see it.
It is interesting to discuss further the character of Dougie, played with finesse by Karl Pilkington. Karl is a true enigma to me. If you have spent any time listening to the popular podcast he does with Gervais and Steve Merchant, which you should, he often comes off as dense. In fact, his stupidity is the crux of the show at times. Yet, his performance in Derek is so impressive it is hard to believe he is anything other than brilliant. His portrayal of Dougie is often the highlight of the episodes, and it’s easy to see that Karl has a future well beyond this series. But, it does beg the question – Is the imbecile he often presents himself as on the podcast simply a character? Either way I am inclined to say – BRAVO! It is worth tuning into Derek for Karl’s portrayal of Dougie alone.
Title notwithstanding, it can be argued that the real star of the show is Kerry Godliman as Hannah ((Gervais seems to have a knack for casting strong talented, female leads, Ashley Jenson in “Extras” is another prime example.)). Hannah defines altruistic, as she has set aside everything else in her life for the commitment of those she oversees at the home. She is tender, protective of Derek, brilliantly relatable, and tough yet vulnerable. Although Derek is the heart of the show, the knot that ties everything together, Gervais sees it fit to allow him not to always be the center of attention – and the talented cast around him are often the scene stealers, the ones that dramatically drive the plot forward.
Derek is at its best when it zeroes in on the more profound matters in life – the power of kindness, the nature of mortality, the notion of loneliness, the often fruitless pursuit of happiness, and the often disregarded point of view of those too old to care for themselves. It’s the existential aspects of Derek that finds it at its best. The final episode of the first season is an ode to the power of everlasting love. It’s a true heartbreaker. Derek aims for the heart, and once and awhile it misses, but when it hits, it’s a dead-center bulls-eye.