Ricky Gervais’ Derek: An Atheist’s Enthusiasm For Life

Derek is an original series written, directed, and starring Ricky Gervais and is now available on Netflix for streaming. I can’t enthusiastically recommend this show because it’s too far off the normal spectrum to be relatable or easy to explain but it deserves consideration because of how incredibly bold it is from a creative standpoint. Gervais believes in a kind of hybridized vision of comedy and tragedy that is in a lot of ways unbearable to watch when he’s invested in the subject matter. This is a good thing, it’s brave and experimental. Maybe groundbreaking. But not always successful which is its own way important because he is constantly exploring and trying to find the ways where something awful can find a way to be funny. This is something like shotgun comedy where he goes into a situation, clearly unsure if it’s going to work at all but usually finding enough relatable moments to dig the humor out of a wildly uncomfortable scenario. In the original version of The Office the tone is drastically different from its American counterpart. Characters are much more depressing and unlikable. Dawn’s fiancé is loathsome and borderline emotionally abusive. David Brent is nigh unredeemable in his self involvement and delusion. The sun doesn’t come very often in Slough. In fact, the final payoff to the will they/won’t they romance doesn’t even happen in the course of the actual series, the Brits have an unhealthy obsession with Christmas specials. Extras was too much fun to be dark at all, so I count that as one part his genius and one part willingness for A-List celebrites to lampoon themselves in hilarious ways. Which brings us to Derek.

Set in a retirement home, Gervais portrays a volunteer caregiver who may or may not have developmental disabilities. This apparently caused a healthy amount of controversy upon release, with some critics taking umbrage at the idea of an actor portraying a mentally challenged person in a show with comedic overtones. Where I understand this sensitivity, it’s important to make distinctions with the material at hand. I’d argue that it’s more offensive to take issue with the fact that a main character can be mentally handicapped. Why can’t he be? Or not be, it’s never really explored and his coworkers are fiercely loyal to him because, as the show capably and overtly declares, what does it matter? It doesn’t change who the character is. Yes, he is being portrayed by an actor and if he were the constant comic foil to the rest of the cast, I’d be right alongside the offended, and although there are a few laughs made at Derek’s expense none of them really have anything to do with his intelligence. Rather, the reason he is funny is because he is this goddamn sweet human being. He is distressingly considerate and fascinated by the little things about life and the people in it, almost to a fault. And when he loses one of his ward he takes it hard. Every time. And he keeps on loving in spite of the eventualities of this job he volunteers to do. Something the rest of us are far removed from.

This is a subject that Gervais clearly takes very seriously. Although the realities of senility are played for a laugh here and there, it’s done so gently, with the knowing sort of nod that seems to say, yes, you’re going to chuckle at this because, honestly, what else can you do? This is that fascinating little sweet spot, that bittersweet moment of introspection that Gervais strives for, that feeling of insecurity in the things we’ve colored black or white, funny or violating. Laugh now and cry later. Or get both out of the way at the same time, because in the end all that matters is what you take from the moment. In the end it’s all the same.

I am an avid fan of Ricky Gervais but I will be the first to admit his reach exceeded his grasp here, he needed a Stephen Merchant or someone like him to audit the emotions he’s playing for. A touch of subtlety would have turned this good show into a great piece of art, the kind of thing that you want to look away from but you can’t because it changes your world view and makes you think about things you don’t want to think about. Where are you going to be when you’re old? Who is going to be there to take care of you, if anyone? What would it be like to have strangers at your side when you leave. What will you say.

I think that one of the things that makes Gervais such a fascinating creative talent is the fact that he was not a professional comic when he found success. When he was picked up by the BBC it was his obtuse, obnoxious depiction of David Brent in a comedy short produced by friends that catapulted him to stardom. His vocabulary is purely informed by his experience as an average adult middle aged nobody. I feel like this has fostered an insecurity in his standup comedy that has inspired him to execute a purely personal project, a labor of love. He’s doing something that he’s never done before, he’s acting. By and large, his body of work consists of Ricky Gervais being one variation of Ricky Gervais or another, he’s been essentially reading lines as the persona that we have come to be familiar with but in Derek he is occupying a role, to varying degrees of success. As per usual, he is playing to the camera or his supporting cast but here he is outside his comfort zone and calling on some very serious subjects to say….what? I’m not sure.

Such is an atheist. However, Gervais is the finest example of the ilk. If there is a running theme through his work it’s that his characters have an enthusiastic personality for life that is alien and bizarre to the people around him. David Brent and Derek Noakes believe that this is The Show, this is it, and instead of resigning to the drudgery and futility of day to day life in the hope that there is something better on the other side they appreciate the time we have for what it is and can be. I am respectful of either side of the coin, the spiritual and the fatalist, but to me, well. You have to play all four quarters, you play them hard. If there is a reward at the end or not, the world is either a better place because you were here or a worse one, the choice is pretty simple. In Derek, Ricky Gervais is saying that you don’t need intelligence, good looks, or fortune to improve your environment. All you need is the heart, good will, and the hands that the Flying Spaghetti Monster may or may not have given you to change a pretty scary and lonely place into a home.


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