This review refers to the 2012 pilot episode of Derek. For our review of the first two episodes of the 2013 series, click here.
Approaching a new Ricky Gervais comedy without preconceptions is now impossible. Let’s just list them: it’ll rehash The Office; it’ll feature delusional people obsessing about fame, in a way that reminds us about Gervais’s own artistic integrity and success; it’ll have jokes about vulnerable people or minorities that supposedly confront prejudice, but often look awfully close to just laughing at people for being different.
Derek, a comedy about a man with learning difficulties who works in an old people’s home, could have been the moment when Gervais roared up the Mekong Delta of political incorrectness, firing flaming £50 notes at jealous critics who want to bring him down.
Instead, the pilot episode is a sensitive comedy drama that recalls the sudden cries from the heart we saw at the end of Extras and, particularly, The Office. Almost all those preconceptions are wrong. Almost all of them. Gervais is trying, if not to atone, then to progress – but he’s not been bold enough. Smears of old paint spoil the canvas.
Derek is a simple man (Gervais actually denies he is disabled: "He’s cleverer than Baldrick and Father Dougal and he certainly hasn’t got as big a problem as Mr Bean") whose job keeps him safely supervised and away from conflict, while suiting his capacity for unadorned, unanalysed kindness. Gervais, who also writes and directs, gives him a facial tic that pushes his lower jaw out, a frantic camp shuffle of a walk, and a love of cheap telly and rubbish viral videos.
He is uncynically presented as a hero who is, in Gervais’s words, “better than us” because he lacks ego and guile and merely wants to be nice. Those seeking to take offence at Gervais’s portrayal of Derek will have to look hard, and it’s clearly the result of careful thought: that Derek specifically likes watching Secret Millionaire, for example, is no accident.
But Derek still has Gervais’s own sharp speech rhythms and David Brent’s frustrated, see-what-I-have-to-deal-with looks to camera. This would be easily improved by not falling back yet again on the documentary filming style, which adds nothing here, and perhaps even casting another actor.
Consistently, Gervais’s position as an auteur who has final cut and can cast whomever he pleases gives the show its best and worst features. Kerry Godliman, plucked from BBC2’s madly underrated Home Time, is perfect as Hannah, the care worker who is Derek’s best friend. Hannah is thwarted, selfless, burningly sad but endlessly compassionate – every moment she’s on screen is sigh-inducing magic.
Gervais and Godliman's performances keep the show on track during a first half in which, although we're not laughing at Derek, the comedy/drama mix can be uncomfortable, like Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em remade by Lars von Trier. The action's also full of throwbacks to Gervais's previous work that would have been rejected by a more confident (or less autonomous) writer.
Twice we see Derek suffer clangingly telegraphed slapstick mishaps. He has the indignity of repeating the Life’s Too Short scene where someone unsuitable is sent to chat someone up; and he reprises Gareth from The Office/Maggie from Extras/Karl from The Ricky Gervais Show’s obsession with ridiculous fantasy battles (here it’s a suicide bomber against a shark).
Talking of Karl Pilkington, casting him as the father of the sitcom pseudo-family, an underachiever who has fallen into working as the home's caretaker and harshly offsets Derek's optimism, doesn't help either. If you like Pilkington, you'll like his silly wig and familiar weary directness. If not, the spell is broken.
Towards the end of this pilot episode’s 24 minutes, it becomes a lot more serious and a lot better. An old woman dies, sparking truly superb work from Gervais as actor, writer and director. A wordless, heart-piercing scene where Hannah watches Derek trying to cope is a reminder that Gervais has a powerful talent beneath the tedious bluster.
So what next for Derek? Gervais is “already writing” a series. It would be a surprise if further episodes kept the tenderness and lost the crassness – particularly as Gervais says he wanted to make more of Derek’s briefly glimpsed other friend, who collects autographs.
Cameos by Emma Bunton and Dermot O’Leary were mercifully cut from the pilot to focus on the core story; bringing them back would mean another of Gervais’s old hobbyhorses trampling on what’s nearly a brilliant reinvention.