Derek: The Magical Maybe Mentally Handicapped Person

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Sept. 11 2013 11:21 AM

Cool to Be Kind

Ricky Gervais plays a pure, innocent, gentle soul in Netflix’s Derek. You read that right.

Ricky Gervais in Derek.
Ricky Gervais (right) in Derek

Courtesy of Netflix

Ricky Gervais’ new television show, Derek, available on Netflix in its seven-episode entirety starting Thursday, swiftly tracks a course from sweet to cloying to sugar coma. The show is about a group of kind-hearted, extreme oddballs working at an old-age home, among them a benevolent man named Derek who may or may not be mentally disabled. Gervais, who plays Derek, has vehemently denied that the character is anything other than naïve and strange (an earlier iteration of the character, who Gervais was performing back in 2001, had been seriously sexually abused), but he seems, at the least, a little slow. He’s a grown man obsessed with outlandish fantasy fights—who would win, a shark or a suicide bomber? A whale or a rhino?—who never stops talking and seems confused by complex social interactions. His lower jaw juts out, he walks in a lurch, and he doesn’t make eye contact. There may be nothing wrong with Derek, but people who don’t know him—including us, at the start—suspect that there might be: Strangers make fun of him in bars or think he should be tested for autism.

A comedy by Gervais, the reigning expert in playing guys you’re meant to laugh at, about a man who seems a little off has the potential to be an uncomfortable, odious disaster. (In England, where it aired earlier this year, it’s already somewhat controversial.) But Derek is a fascinating, well-meaning mess, without being a particularly offensive one. The show is a serious departure from Gervais’ previous cringe comedies, The Office and Extras, even though it too chronicles the work lives of lonely characters living disappointing existences using the ol’ reliable mockumentary format. The difference is that Derek is neither cringey nor particularly comedic: It’s the first show Gervais has done about characters for whom he feels nothing but admiration and sympathy.

Tearing up after the death of a resident at the home, Derek says that the deceased told him, “It’s more important to be kind than clever or good-looking. I’m not clever or good-looking, but I am kind. ” This is Derek’s mission statement: It is better to be kind. Derek is loving and sweet guy who helps everyone he can, never complains, and never feels bad about his lot in life. He is surrounded by characters both more mentally acute and sadder of sack than him. Hannah (Kerry Godliman, making decency captivating), the ultra-competent woman who runs the home, is the audience stand-in, a supremely grounded and good woman who works tirelessly and at her own expense. Dougie (the great, weird Karl Pilkington), the home’s Mr. Fix-It and Derek’s roommate, has a brusque manner, a heartbreaking awareness of how small his life is, and a ludicrous hairstyle, Derek’s only real joke. And then there’s Kev (David Earl), a drunk, borderline homeless, lecherous autograph seeker who loiters around the home because Derek has taken a liking to him. One of the darkest characters Gervais has ever dreamed up, a loser with almost no charm, Kev, without Derek, might be sleeping in the gutter.

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As these characters go about their lives, readying for an inspection, putting on a talent show, dealing with a resident’s greedy daughter, I kept expecting the unbearable moment I have to watch through my fingers to arrive. But it never did. A series about the lost and lonely people caring for the elderly and dying, Derek is melancholy, not mortifying. Gervais refuses to heap further indignities on his already beleaguered protagonists. Money-men want to shut Broad Hill down, but the home soldiers on. A performance that has Derek playing Simon Le Bon in a Duran Duran cover group delights its audience. Outsiders with horrible attitudes drop by, behave badly, and get told off.

And about halfway through, all this kindness turns Derek hyper-maudlin. A resident dies in the first episode and it’s touching and rare: Old-age homes, let alone old age, are not frequently seen on television. Later in the season, another resident dies; this time, the show accompanies the death with a montage of the elderly characters when they were young and the soaring sounds of Coldplay’s “Paradise.” A young, shallow woman who wants to be a Kardashian arrives at the home to do community service. After a few days at Broad Hill, she comes to love it: She’s never worked somewhere where people were actually nice and nice to her. It’s a lovely moment that seems less lovely repeated two episodes later, when a young black man arrives to do community service and finds working at the home so rewarding that he performs a rap about the experience. In the finale, an old man tells us that his wife’s late-stage Alzheimer’s is a gift. “Who else gets to fall in love 365 times a year?” he asks, and I wondered how Gervais, a man exquisitely attuned to the bullshit people say on camera, could write such bullshit for the camera.

By the end of the season, Derek has become a variation on the magical Negro: the magical maybe mentally handicapped person, who changes the lives of all around him through his innocence and purity of spirit. The final episode is almost entirely talking head interviews, with Hannah, Dougie, and Kev sharing how lucky they are to know Derek. Kev, tearing up about how he’s wasted his life, says “I’m just glad I met Derek, because he makes me feel better, because he’s better than everyone. Derek took the best short cut you can, the only one that’s good, the only one that works. And that’s kindness.” The last sequence features an embrace of forgiveness while—holy Aaron Sorkin—Coldplay’s “Fix You” blasts. Gervais has created a selfless, innocent, all-forgiving savant who always turns the other cheek and whose simple, pure life is a demonstration to the neglected around him of humanity’s capacity for good. Gervais may be an ardent atheist, but Derek’s not a character, he’s a saint.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.