In its first season, Ricky Gervais’ Netflix series was a charming mix of comedy and drama, proving the challenging comedian best known stateside for his controversial hosting gigs at back-to-back Golden Globes had a heart of gold (or could at least create a show with a sweet soul). “Derek” was built around understanding one man, and while it wasn’t wholly dependent on its audience’s slow acceptance of Gervais sans sarcasm, its heart-warming impact was certainly aided by a knowledge of its creator’s past.
Now, in season two, we know Derek. We know Gervais, too. We’re well aware of his capabilities as a dramatic actor, even on a show with a consistent level of comedy. Though “Derek” still has moments of sweetness, much of the romance from its initial go-round has vanished, replaced by crude jokes better suited for a light sprinkling — as they were in season one — than blanket coverage.
Balance is the main issue here. Before, Derek’s childlike views on life were extolled in a manner befitting a modern audience. Jokes were dropped in at just the right time and with enough frequency to break up anything too melodramatic, a necessary practice for a generation incapable of consuming media without irony. The humor also helped the touching moments land softly.
Season two is all over the map. The first four episodes are heavy on the sex jokes, with Derek’s friend Kev (played by David Earl) having his role as an alcoholic sex-maniac elevated past its recommended dosage. Kev’s quite a character, played with an excellent amount of sleaze by Earl — that shitty grin he gives is hard to top — but he’s best in smaller doses, popping up to offer commentary when relief is needed. Kev’s not a leading lad, at least not in his current iteration.
His increased role is forced, in part, by Dougie’s departure. Played by Gervais’ longtime friend and coworker Karl Pilkington, the genial, quiet maintenance man who played a prominent role in season one exits after the first episode of season two, a seemingly inconsequential departure (other than fondness for the lovable oaf). Yet Dougie comes to embody the missing element of “Derek.” He helped form an ideal trio of friends with Derek and Kev, the three playing perfectly off each other and sharing the story loads. Yes, Derek got most of the attention, but Dougie and Kev’s love for their coworker seeped into the mechanics of the operation.
It didn’t help that Dougie is replaced by Geoff (Colin Hoult), an excessively rude and ill-defined “dickhead” who isn’t given much to work with until the season finale. Geoff has the potential to fit in after a forced transformation in the finale, but it’s too little, too late for season two. That goes for much of “Derek’s” better parts — most are held back until later in the season, including Derek himself. He doesn’t completely disappear, but he’s relegated to ensemble duty rather than being front and center.
He pops back up again in a major way for the fifth and sixth episodes of the aptly brief British program, but even these aren’t handled as well as the first season’s hankie-grabbing finale. Speaking of, one of the most troubling oversights is the way a big focus from season one fails to pay off. Derek’s relationship with his estranged father isn’t particularly well examined. It’s developed and rounded out by the end of the season, but it fails to be as meaningful as their meeting a year prior.
A few moments stand out — sharing a whiskey shot and his father’s date among them — but for the most part, Derek isn’t much more of a man after meeting his dad, and he’s certainly not a more interesting character. We learned so much about Gervais’ creation the last time around and so little here. Origin stories can’t be repeated (despite what the comic book movies would have you believe), but characters can be developed and Derek’s lack of progress would be infuriating if he wasn’t so damn good. He’s pure of heart, and even some clunky writing can’t touch Gervais’ pure understanding of the character.
If anything, season two of “Derek” will be remembered for pushing the boundaries of its two genres. It has some heavy dramatic moments and some extremely light comedic ones. If Gervais could have only found a way to blend the two a little better, perhaps season two could have lived up to its predecessor.