The Binge-Watch List: Ricky Gervais is actually, alarmingly quite sweet in Derek

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Ricky Gervais has made quite a career out of playing unpleasant people. On the original UK version of The Office, he played a deluded, sadistic boss. On Extras, he played a frustrated, angry actor. On The Ricky Gervais Show, he created a podcast largely built around himself and Stephen Merchant mocking their weird friend Karl Pilkington. When he’s hosted the Golden Globes, he’s made headlines by being slightly meaner than is normally acceptable in the context of a back-slapping award show. So it’s surprising that his latest show, Derek (allegedly a “Netflix Original” but really created for Channel 4 in Britain), is a nice, sweet show, featuring Gervais as Derek Noakes, a nice, sweet character.

It’s even more surprising that a show that Americans could only watch on Netflix streaming got Gervais an Emmy nomination earlier this month for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy. (He’s up against Jim Parsons [The Big Bang Theory], William H. Macy [Shameless], Matt LeBlanc [Episodes], Louis C.K. [Louie], and Don Cheadle [House of Lies]. Of the six nominated actors, only Parsons is on a show that airs on a broadcast network. Louie is on FX, and all the rest are on Showtime, which is apparently the center of Emmy-approved comedy these days.)

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No one can accuse Derek (Ricky Gervais) of being a glamorous character.

So now that Derek has the Emmy seal of approval—at least in nomination form—maybe it’s time to give this show a watch.

What it’s about

Ricky Gervais plays the titular Derek, who works in a nursing home alongside Hannah (Kerry Godliman) and Dougie (Karl Pilkington, taking a break from the various television shows where he jumps through international hoops to entertain Gervais and Merchant). Derek’s defining characteristics is that he’s very kind, but somewhat dim. Gervais plays him with a grimace and an underbite but stays just on the good side of caricature. The elderly residents of the nursing home are largely background characters to Derek’s story, but they’re treated with respect.

What makes it interesting

Derek is a genuinely nice person, which is unusual for a Ricky Gervais character. The thesis of the show is put forth by Derek in the very first episode, when he says, “It’s more important to be kind than clever or good-looking.” This is in contrast to the way Gervais tends to behave in the real world, where he appears to value cleverness above all other things. So it’s not entirely clear if Derek is expressing an opinion held by Gervais (who wrote and directed every episode) or if Gervais just wanted to explore a different point of view for a time.

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As Dougie, Karl Pilkington does pretty much the only thing he seems capable of doing. Luckily, he's very good at it.

It’s also interesting to see Karl Pilkington as an actor, because he behaves exactly the way he does when he’s on The Ricky Gervais Show or An Idiot Abroad. It’s never been entirely clear if Pilkington is genuinely as strange as he appears, but Derek at least establishes that he can act like Karl Pilkington while reading scripted lines. Except instead of being the weirdo that Gervais condescends to, now he’s the smart friend who sometimes condescends to Gervais. He still delivers the same kind of exasperated speeches about how he doesn’t understand why people do things, but Gervais has put him the position of frequently being correct.

What makes it not so great

I’m not convinced it’s a comedy. It’s surprisingly sweet and charming, but it rarely made me laugh. That might just be my problem, because it describes the way I react to some of the other comedies the Emmy voters seem to like. But it’s not like Louie, where people just mope around a bit. Because Derek is set in a nursing home, people die. There are tragedies throughout the show. And sure, they all serve to point up the value of Derek having a kind heart, but they have a cumulative effect. Also, if you’re in the wrong mood, the show might also tip over into being cloying. This particularly applies if you’re likely to roll your eyes when the soundtrack starts playing Coldplay.

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Hannah (Kerry Godliman) isn't exactly a romantic interest, although she does seem to like Derek more than she likes her fiancee.

What’s the math

ER plus Golden Girls minus any sense of urgency. Kind of. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of shows like Derek, because American television tends not to feature nice characters. And it almost never puts old people on screen unless they’re either rapping or Betty White. Or both.

So how is it?

I feel like I’ve used the words “sweet” and “charming” several times already, but they really are the best way to describe Derek. It’s kind of shocking that Ricky Gervais has created a television show that feels this sincere, but that’s the crazy upside-down world we find ourselves in.

How many hours should I watch at a time?

Two. That’s four episodes, so you’ll be done in three days if you squeeze in an extra episode somewhere. Any more than that, and I think Derek might turn the corner from “nice” to “depressing.” It’s certainly enough to get a feel for why Ricky Gervais got his Emmy nomination, though.

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