Does the world need more of Derek? Nearly a year and a half ago, Ricky Gervais’ unique comic/dramatic creation hit our screens, and prompted a maelstrom of opinion in the news pages as well as the arts pages, as commentators dissected both the ethics and aesthetics of an almost preternaturally nice but socially awkward character (although Gervais insisted Derek has no disability, and that that judgement is his solely his as the writer). Is such a portrayal patronising? Even bigoted? Is it good that it’s raising ‘awareness’? Are you laughing at Derek or with him? And, if the question is any different from the aforementioned, is it actually any good?
I was initially sceptical, but grew into it, warming to the characters and believing that, even if the end result could reasonably be described as schmaltzy and patronising, it’s well-intentioned. I think it took time for me – and others judging by the two season’s respective ratings on Rotten Tomatoes – because it is quite different for today’s comedy. Much American fare is reliant on one-liners and laughter tracks, while British comedy leans heavily on irony. As Gervais says: “The difference with [Derek] and other sitcoms, and certainly other sitcoms that I’ve done, is that there’s no real vein of irony.” With satire, as technically difficult as it can be, those behind it aren’t really advocating anything or opening themselves up emotionally. So, speaking as an occasional writer of satire, I actually think that, contrary to the idea of it as risque and cutting edge, satire is actually a very safe option in a way, providing a comfort blanket of inauthenticity. So it’s actually rather bold of Gervais to eschew cynicism and (faux) arrogance for positivity and sentiment.
It’s intriguing to question whether there would have been such a furore if an unknown actor played Derek and a venerable, right-on writer such as Richard Curtis was behind him. It’s often, as here, very hard to divorce the actor from the character, and it seems a lot of the criticism of the show arose from an idea of Gervais as a bully-boy, taking jabs at different groups to cynically boost his career while using that ‘tired old’ excuse of merely ‘satirising’ prejudice. (In fairness, Gervais hardly helped himself by publically using the word ‘Mong’ on his Twitter not too long before Derek’s first season. But if you look back to his other work, you can see that he has been ahead of many peers in casting disabled actors to play disabled roles, along with working with disability groups.)
The debate between offending and highlighting offence is an important and complex debate within comedy. But to me it’s clear where Gervais’ loyalties lie. Derek is, as the show’s name would suggest, the hero of the show, rewarded for his limitless generosity and selflessness by the friendship of all the people in the home – and his beloved animals. On the other hand, David Brent, with all his questionable and awkward social attitudes, is clearly the butt of the jokes. Granted, the viewer is laughing at/with Derek, but should vulnerable people in society be relentlessly mollycoddled, as if they need to be ‘protected’ from the ‘real world’? Or, as Derek is, shown as people with sometimes amusing failings and nuances like everyone else? I don’t know the answer – and I worded that quite selectively – but I think it’s worth questioning.
Having said all this in favour of Derek, I’m not so sure it should return for a third season. The characters don’t develop too much, especially Derek. That’s kind of the point. There is some scope for developments for the supporting cast: Will Hannah and Tom have more luck with a child? Will Vicky find a nice boyfriend, like the bloke from the zoo? Will Kev become a functioning member of society? Will Geoff stop being such a twat? But changing Derek Noakes himself would be more problematic. Gervais let him venture outside of the bubble of Broadhill a little bit in the final episode of this series, as he went to dinner with someone from a dating website. It was a well-pitched, awkward yet light bit of drama, but I can’t see how a convincing relationship could be made of it.
So while I wouldn’t certainly complain if Derek came back for a new season, the way it’s been left would make a fitting ending, and it could be wise to leave it before it runs out of legs, leaving fans craving more like the odd Christmas special, as Gervais did with The Office and Extras. Not that Derek would agree. I’m sure he would want to carry on spreading the love, in his own humble way: “Kindness is magic because it makes you feel good whether you’re the one handing it out, or the one receiving it. It’s contagious.”
Originally published on Screenrobot