Well, that was quick.
It took only weeks to blast through the seven, 20-some-odd-minute episodes of Ricky Gervais’ latest series, “Derek,” which also happens to be Netflix’s latest offering in its original content catalogue. If Sept. 12 was “Derek Day” (and it was, as you’ll see if you click that link), then today is the day we finally say …
And Now It’s Time To Talk About “Derek.” Boom.
The short of it? The show’s good in an unexpected way. That’s not to say I didn’t have high hopes (I did; click that above link, duh); rather, it’s only to say this: I’m not sure what I expected precisely, but whatever that was, “Derek” is not entirely that. It’s not supposed to be funny, so when it is, you aren’t quite sure how to react. Probably the smartest thing I’ve read about the series so far came from The Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever …
“The only problem is an overall feeling of hesitation — on Gervais’s part, but also on his audience’s,” he wrote. “You’re so braced for something to snap, for the comedy to stray into no-no land, that it’s hard to relax and appreciate ‘Derek’s’ emotional intent.”
Indeed. You almost get the sense that the project was initially intended to be funnier and more politically incorrect than it ultimately turned out to be (Derek has been a Gervais character forever, from what I understand), but after the backlash that ensued once Gervais unleashed the pilot about 49 years ago, he called a last-minute audible and went for the heart-strings. (Note No. 1: I could be completely wrong, of course, and frankly, I hope I am, but what’s this blog if it doesn’t offer an adequate amount of cynicism, I ask you? It’s nothing, I say. Nothing.)
Actually, the lack of such glass-half-empty-ness throughout all of this first series is both refreshing and far, far more touching than anyone could have ever predicted. Of the seven episodes offered, you’ll tear up through at least five of them. The pilot and finale? Yeah, there’s no way you walk away without full-blown weeping. And if you don’t, you might as well give up television, because honestly: What’s the point? If you’re too cool for school and can’t let this stuff get to you, you’re wasting your time sitting in front of a screen, watching moving pictures for hours on end anyway.
But I digress. More than anything, the project brings to the forefront what’s been the key force behind all the political-incorrectness-type humor with which Gervais has been synonymous. That key? His heart. You can go all the way back to “The Office” and find how much the tiny romantic nuances and displays of kindness carry each story above other, more-predictable sitcoms. Even if you never gave the British version a try, you’d be lying if you didn’t at least acknowledge that what kept the series alive stateside for so long was the love affair between Jim and Pam (or, back across the pond, Tim and Dawn). That’s where the guy’s genius is — not awkward pauses or clueless workplace bosses. He knows how to push all the right mushy buttons and he has no problem doing so as much as he can.
In that sense, “Derek” is pitch-perfect. We all knew this would be The Serious Ricky Gervais Show, but what we didn’t know was how consistently he could land that arrow at the center of our collective soul. Turns out, he’s a much better shot than previously believed. Set in a retirement home, you can predict very quickly who may be on his or her way out the door (for all the saddest reasons, of course), but that doesn’t stop the moment from bringing you to your knees. Despite the body count being on par with “The Wire,” you can’t help but marvel at how elegantly and poignantly the writer pulls the stories off visually, mostly thanks to his main protagonist, who instantly becomes lovable and never even attempts to fog up that reputation through inappropriateness or something as trite as obnoxiousness (Note No. 2: I’ve read writers who talk about how grating the title character becomes and to that I say this: Shut up. There are entire episodes where Derek himself is hardly a secondary character, fading into the back and not even being on camera enough to annoy or enrage).
Better yet is the cast that rounds out the whole thing. Karl Pilkington’s Dougie and Kerry Godliman’s Hannah are some of the best supporting roles Gervias has ever been around. The former’s bitterness offsets the enlightenment Derek so frequently gives him and Pilkington proves he’s the perfect guy to make that contrast work. Godliman, meanwhile, is a brilliant choice for the woman who essentially gives her life to the home, regardless of how much of a negative impact it may have on her personal life (which, of course, it does). I mean, my God — she even has the look down, her hair constantly pinned up and her idiosyncratic, caring mannerisms identical to every single nurse you’ve ever come across in your life. She anchors the show with grace and intrigue, one minute head-butting women at a bar, the next being too scared to ask a guy on a date.
It all adds up to one of the easiest viewing experiences (non)television has ever seen. The short runtime helps, yes, but even if you added an extra 10 to 15 minutes, it’d be hard to turn away. The only real knock is the depth of the stories — without spoiling too much, there are a few plot-lines that run concurrent with other things Gervais has done in his past series — but that’s quickly forgiven because of how compact everything feels. It’s hard to tell if an Americanized version would enhance or detract its quality (more episodes would either expose it as a one-trick pony or allow the whole thing to be flushed out with more detail, which admittedly wouldn’t hurt the show as a whole), but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter: A second go-around has already been commissioned for the UK’s Channel 4, Netflix or not.
And if there is no Netflix for that second series, I’ll still find a way to come back to it — Gervais is too good to let this go to waste and as he proved with his other projects, he knows when to call it quits, which is half the battle anyway. It’s hard to consider it alongside “House of Cards,” “Arrested Development” and “Orange Is The New Black” simply because it’s just so different. Actually, that’s probably the most palpable takeaway from all this: “Derek,” as a whole, is a little different from anything else you’ll see anywhere these days. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh while you cry. You’ll laugh without even feeling tears creep behind your eyes. You’ll cry after you’re convinced there’s nothing it can do to make you cry. You’ll smile. You’ll frown. And, of course, you’ll keep pressing “Next Episode.”
“She said it’s more important to be kind than clever or good looking,” Derek tells the camera at one point early on in the series while talking about one of his good friends. “I’m not clever or good looking but I’m kind.”
The heart melts. Kindness prevails. “Derek” has another admirer. And Netflix cements the very real fact that is has another successful original programming venture added to its already impressive library.