In Ricky Gervais’s newest workday sonata of casually dwarfed expectations, the most prominent and acerbic auteur of the contemporary mockumentary assumes the title role of Derek, a fiftysomething caretaker at a home for the elderly who’s known for wearing his huge heart on his sleeve. The disconnection between the established personality of the actor-writer-director and the sensibility of his new role is intended to be jarring, and Gervais further ups the ante by giving Derek some kind of vaguely established mental problem that might be a mild form of autism. In other words, Gervais has fashioned a series that forces him to suppress his gift for sharp, curt verbal punchlines, or to at least volley them off more often to his supporting players.
With Derek, Gervais is clearly posing another challenge to himself as well: How does an often socially merciless comedian address the traditional plights of the elderly without resorting to the mean, easy, and maudlin? He’s obviously aware of the pitfalls that await comics who attempt to self-consciously prove themselves as dramatists, and so Derek is logically at its best when Gervais is nakedly wrestling with new ways to express himself through the elderly characters, as he shares with them an unexpected camaraderie: His rage as an artist, often directed at the unfathomable gulfs between desire and personal fulfillment as informed by class strata, finds a kinship with the rage of people who are tired of being mythologized, coddled, and condescended to by their children’s generation.
There are moments in Derek that are as piercing and emotionally surprising as any in Gervais’s career. A young man who fashions himself as a rapper is sentenced to community service in the home, and he learns a few of the usual lessons about civic pride and responsibility, but with a twist. The episode climaxes with the rapper performing a new song about his recent experiences, and though he voices the expected sentiments, he does so with a measure of revulsion and self-doubt that’s funny and disconcerting. He likens the men and women to corpses, admits that he hates it at the home, though he concludes that he hopes to one day be at a point of selflessness where he doesn’t hate it.
This kind of moment of personal reckoning and blossoming self-consciousness is common enough in Derek, and it manages to showcase what’s both bracing and irritating about the series. Gervais’s efforts to adhere to a coming-of-age formula with a bit of regard for life as it’s actually lived are admirable, but his vision is incomplete and often borders on smug. For all the thrashing about in the name of empathy, the characters are often obvious signposts for what are presumably Gervais’s worldviews, and he perversely refuses to allow any of the elderly people to step to the show’s forefront as living and breathing creations. Gervais indulges the same tunnel vision that he criticizes his characters for, as he sees the old people as little more than vehicles for the younger characters’ often pat self-actualization.
It can be argued that Gervais is way ahead of me on this point, and that he’s deliberately marginalizing the elderly in order to comment on that very marginalization, so that it’s all the more shocking when an elderly character asserts his or her personality seemingly out of the blue. There’s an Alzheimer’s subplot that’s wrenching—until you gain a bit of distance and realize how cynically it’s been used to provoke a few easy tears, so the season will end on a requisite note of closure and release.
Premiering in the U.S. via Netflix, the new binge method of consuming television shows only accentuates the suspicion that Gervais doesn’t have any new ideas beyond the ultimately superficial bravura of his new milieu. Hannah (Kerry Godliman), Derek’s co-worker and unrequited love interest, is basically a warmed-over reprise of Dawn, the distraught receptionist from the U.K. version of The Office; she even has a tentative romance with a kindly hunk that resembles Dawn’s eventual relationship with her co-worker, Tim. Dougie (Karl Pickington) and Kev (David Earl) are the resident oddballs, and while they’re often the funniest and most engaging part of the series, they’re still never really allowed to truly upset the show’s schematic apple cart with their gross and unruly longing.
And another thing about all this longing and despair, which is also carted in from The Office, Extras, and Life’s Too Short: Did it ever occur to Gervais that some working-class Joes aren’t ground down from despair, which is always derived from a lack of ambition that he bluntly ascribes to cowardice? Gervais’s “empathy,” for which he’s earned considerable kudos, is beginning to look a lot like hatred, condescension, and judgment, the very qualities he pretends to satirize through Derek’s various one-note villains. One can’t help but anticipate the next over-hyped Ricky Gervais production that satirizes a once-acclaimed actor as he assumes a mentally challenged role deviously safeguarded in a fashion that allows him to erect a monument of praise to himself with a minimal risk of being called out on it. Oh, wait…