My favorite Ricky Gervais bit is one from his “Fame” stand-up tour in which he talks about befriending the autistic son of one of his new neighbors. Told the boy doesn’t get out much because he doesn’t have friends, Gervais offers to take him to the zoo, but after waving goodbye to his teary mother, takes the kid to a casino instead and attempts to take advantage of what he assumes will be “Rain Man”-type gifts. It’s a brilliant riff on the obnoxious, narcissistic persona Gervais has adopted on the stage, a more inflated version of the obliviously petty tyrantisms of David Brent, the character Gervais played in “The Office,” the landmark comedy series he co-created with Stephen Merchant. It’s his own ridiculousness that’s the butt of the joke, not that of the fictional kid, but Gervais is also upending expectations of a treacly anecdote about the disabled — an “in the end, I learned more from him” kind of story.
So it’s strange and deflatingly disappointing that “Derek,” Gervais’ latest effort, falls exactly in the vein of the sentiments he was poking fun of in that stand-up segment. Gervais, for all that he’s embraced the unforgiving comedy of cringing awkwardness, of dead silences and transparent self-puffery, is also capable of being cloying. Produced by Channel 4 in the UK and acquired by Netflix for all other territories, “Derek,” which has been released today on the streaming site in its current seven-episode, first season form, is only partially a comedy. It’s primarily a straight-faced ode to the underappreciated outsiders working at an underfunded nursing home, among them the title character played by Gervais, a 49-year-old man who’s possibly mentally disabled or autistic, but who’s happy to be working with his friends and the elderly, and whose outlook on life is an inspiration to them.
When “Derek” was first announced, there was a preemptive protest from people who assumed Gervais would be making fun of the disabled, which is absolutely not the case. But Derek is problematic in a different way — he’s magical, a Forrest Gump who doesn’t go anywhere, but whose childlike, cheery disposition is a light in the darkness. Gervais plays Derek as perpetually open mouthed and hunched over, peering up from beneath a furrowed brow and greasy haircut. He’s deliberately made to not look lovable, so that the show can then emphasize his sincere goodness, the way he adores animals and the old people he cares for, his mild hijinks involving falling in a pond or calling an ambulance to help him care for a baby bird he finds on the ground. Derek’s boss is Hannah (Kerry Godliman), a woman so unfailingly dedicated to her job that she fights to raise funds for the place itself when it’s in danger of being shut down. Dougie (Gervais’ favorite hilarious punching bag Karl Pilkington, in the show’s best performance) is the endearingly pessimistic caretaker. And Kev is the sex-obsessed homeless man Derek’s befriended, who hangs around the home and spouts off inappropriate comments.
“Derek” is not content to just appreciate these characters and their selflessness, it has to provide constant self-congratulatory evidence about how no one else does. Almost everyone who comes to visit the home is a monster — the daughter of an ailing woman who comes only to keep an eye on the ring she’s been promised as an inheritance, the council members who want to close the place down because they care more about funding than the lives of its inhabitants, the former schoolmate of Hannah’s who arrives swathed in designer clothes and prattles on about herself while talking down to Hannah. The ones who aren’t are won over and transformed — the chavette whose vague goal for the future before she falls in love with the place was to become like the Kardashians, or the rapper who’s changed by talking to veterans from the war who were shot at defending the country rather than in gang fights. There are no normal people — just the saintly good workers and the terrible, materialistic, empty types on the outside.
Shot mockumentary style, “Derek” is a sparse half-hour show that spends a fair portion of its time on montages and characters giving interviews to the camera, which is part of why it feels so heavy-handed — the characters literally talk about the themes of the series, from why Derek is so special to what they think the meaning of life is. They’re minimally sketched out already, and having them explain so flatly what’s already clear from what we’ve just watched on screen makes them seem even more like mouthpieces for Gervais’ ideas about kindness, a word that’s dropped frequently. Gervais is perfectly earnest in what he’s set out to do with “Derek,” and his heart is in the right place, but in trying to do right by these characters he ends up in danger of condescending to both them and the audience.