Friday, 25 January 2013

DEREK: The latest project from Ricky Gervais

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 24th January 2013.


A pseudo-documentary based in an old people's home, Ricky Gervais' Derek caused something of a stir when the pilot aired last year.

Following on the heels of a much-criticised incident where he used the word “mong” on Twitter and denied all knowledge of it being a disablist term, the controversy was compounded by his new project, in which he appeared to be playing a man with learning difficulties. Gervais, of course, stubbornly denied that he was.

To be fair to his creator, the shambling Derek – a voluntary carer – is never presented as an object of ridicule. Indeed, he's innocent and kind to a fault. Gervais says he wishes more people were like him.

But Derek's physical appearance - jaw permanently jutted, hair flattened over his forehead - is practically identical to the face Gervais pulls in the countless pictures he Tweets of himself to cruelly mock the supposedly idiotic fans of Susan Boyle and Britain's Got Talent. Coincidentally, they're also two of Derek's favourite things. So what's he trying to say here? I don't think even he knows.

Make no mistake, Derek – a series written and directed by Gervais alone - is one of the most embarrassingly inept concoctions you're ever likely to see. Indeed, I actually feel quite sorry for the befuddled auteur. He's a thin-skinned, insecure superstar who wants to be seen as a great artist and deep thinker. And his heart appears to be in the right place with Derek. In theory at least, it's a (painfully) sincere attempt to say something meaningful about human kindness and the way society marginalises the elderly.

But Gervais' efforts are so horribly forced and heavy-handed. It feels more like a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation than the heart-warming – and potentially award-winning - piece he's aiming for. The pathos in his only great work,The Office, felt relatively effortless, but here it's delivered with a sledgehammer.

The soundtrack drowns in overbearing “FEEL SAD NOW” piano, as Gervais pits his merry band of outsiders against crudely-rendered men in grey. And despite good performances from his core cast – including regular sidekick Karl Pilkington – Gervais is still problematic in the lead role. You never believe in Derek as a consistent character. It's just millionaire comedian Ricky Gervais shuffling about in a cardigan and pulling a face.

As a comedy-drama, it's almost fascinatingly dull, repetitive, shallow and unsubtle. The dramatic elements are overdone and the comedy barely existent. A tonal train-wreck, its abject failings are crystallised in the hilariously ill-conceived montage that closes episode two. Scored to Radiohead's tenderly triumphant Bones (clumsy literalism ahoy!), images of happily dreaming elderly residents are spliced with grainy footage of them supposedly in their youth. It's truly jaw-dropping in its deranged efforts to yank the heartstrings.

If that wasn't jarring enough, it's immediately preceded by a scene in which Derek vomits into a toilet, an old man soils himself, and another character emits an explosive fart. It's like someone earnestly lecturing you on the poetry of existence while throwing bricks through your window. Time and time again you'll ask yourself: “What the hell were you thinking, man?!”

Quoted in the official press release, Gervais actually says – of his own creation – that he's never seen anything quite like it. Fair dues, Ricky, I'm with you on that.

DEREK airs from Wednesday 30th January on Channel 4 at 10pm.

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