In last month’s Vanity Fair, A. A. Gill, a writer on both sides of the Atlantic, did his best to summarise British comedy for an American audience. “It’s bully humour”, he wrote, “…hierarchical, deflating and pathologically cruel. American humor (sic) is the cry of the bullied… the wit and the last word of the small man”.
Ricky Gervais himself has tirelessly recounted the same idea in interviews and articles alike. Americans, he wrote in Time, “applaud ambition and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers”.
This is all very relevant, because Derek, Ricky Gervais’ new comedy, is the awkward, hollow and unfunny result of a misguided attempt to marry ‘British’ and ‘American’ forms of humour.
Despite leading a jet-setting lifestyle between London and both coasts of the US, Gervais has insisted on championing the story of a very British underdog, Derek Noakes – a man with unspecified learning difficulties who helps out at a care-home for the elderly.
Noakes is surrounded by “all [his] favouritest people”. His friends range from the old people who inhabit the home to the selfless manager Hannah, (Kerry Godliman), caretaker Dougie (Karl Pilkington) and hanger-on Kev (David Earl).
The majority of the ensemble cast play their roles well within the confines of a two-dimensional script. Earl and Pilkington are head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of providing entertaining screen-time, though Kev’s smut is nothing we haven’t seen already in his portrayal of porn-obsessed Brian in Cemetery Junction, or Andy Millman’s obsessed fan in Extras. Godliman is loveable and warm as the long-suffering care home manageress, but one almost begins to dislike her as a reaction to how much her selflessness and loveliness are thrust in your face.
The character of Derek actually just made me feel a bit uneasy. Gervais is essentially begging us to find him cute and loveable, which ends up just feeling patronising to real people with learning difficulties. He has one, simple character trait – sincerity – and as a result it’s hard to see how the rest of the series will have the leverage to develop or go anywhere interesting
The pithy plot of the first episode reads like a Year Eight English class’ attempt to write The Office. Evil, heartless bureaucrats are trying to shut down the home because they don’t care about ordinary people; Derek and his friends create a petition to save the home. Whereas David Brent’s bosses Jennifer Taylor-Clark and Neil Godwin in The Office felt as if they were real people with selfish intentions, the bureaucrats in Gervais’ latest feel like cartoon characters he’s sketched by an L.A poolside after reading on Twitter that there are cuts happening in the U.K.
Gervais has never shied away from analysing comedy, and treating it as an art form or a science as opposed to an innate, inexplicable talent. All the same, Derek feels like a step too far in this direction. It’s far too self-aware. It’s a formula that works on paper but not in practice. The idea of the care home setting is fantastic, for example. Gervais is right that our society is self-obsessed, qualities such as kindness are undervalued and the elderly are neglected: its about time someone put old people in the spot-light. Derek doesn’t, though. It gets distracted by its lead character and its attempt to make so-called British humour compassionate and caring. It’s trying to do too much, and ends up doing very little at all.
PHOTO/Alison Willmore, Steve Leedale