New series of Derek begins

Ricky Gervais as Derek

Ricky Gervais’ comedy/drama Derek returned to UK television last week, this time for a full series. The pilot had apparently been controversial for some, but I just remember being pleasantly surprised by Gervais’ kind but coarse treatment of delicate issues such as disability and the care profession. He did so in a way that was both heartwarming, without ever becoming saccharine, and simple, without ever being boring. A lot of critics seemed unconvinced, but I think they were missing the point, assuming that Gervais was either taking cheap shots at vulnerable people, or that he was attempting some sort of ‘clever’ post-modern ‘so-shit-its-cool’ maneuver.  But this is a sitcom only in the loosest definition of the term, and the only people Gervais is deliberately mocking, are those who get offended mainly as a cover for their own thinly-veiled prejudices. I read a rather scathing review of Derek in The Daily Telegraph today. Nuff said.

The first episode had me laughing out loud a few times, it is definitely very funny – but as with the pilot, the new material is as much to do with empathy as it is to do with cracking jokes. Maybe this is where some of the show’s critics are left wanting. They don’t seem to understand that Gervais is taking the piss out of them. He’s having a go at how, when we see someone we perceive to be different to ourselves, we feel the need to categorise them, and that that category can stop us seeing them as real people – with interests, passions, quirks, humour and emotion.

Coupled with his genuine love for the character, it is palpable that Gervais has created Derek in order to get across his statement about society’s attitudes. When the pilot of this show aired in Spring 2012, a lot of people (critics and newspaper columnists in particular) speculated that the character is Autistic – something which Gervais has denied in the press previously (stating in an interview with The Sun in March last year, ‘I’ve never thought of him as disabled’) and which he brazenly referenced towards the end of the first episode of this series. When a Council representative visiting the retirement home insensitively questioned Derek as to whether he had ever been tested for Autism, Derek offered a stream of questions about what would happen, should he be Autistic, such as, ‘Would I die?’, ‘Would I have to go into a hospital?’ and ‘Would it change me in any way as a person?’. Having received a ‘no’ to all of these queries, our eponymous hero simply said ‘Don’t worry about it then’. In this small dialogue, which lasted no more than a minute, Gervais perfectly summed up his feelings: so what if Derek is Autistic? Can’t we just enjoy him for the unassuming, kind-natured person he so clearly is without questioning whether he has a disorder or not? For Gervais to reply to his critics so concisely through the mouth of Derek was perfect and ingenious. From: http://uktvreviewer.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/derek-episode-1-1-review/

Gervais isn’t scared of getting political either – the main theme of the first installment is public sector cuts. The care home is threatened with closure due to shrinking budgets, and Gervais does a very good job of humanizing this modern problem. It makes for compelling viewing and a very effective strike against this current trend for passing the world’s economic woes onto those who struggle to look after themselves.

All of the characters in Derek represent those at the very bottom of the modern economic food chain –  low-paid public sector workers, the disabled, the elderly, the poor and the unemployed – sections of our communities that have been hit hardest by the Tories’ austerity drive, and subsequently demonized by politicians to justify the attack. Derek forms a much needed antidote to this insidious propaganda, and does so simply by being gentle and honest.

Derek is by no means perfect, and some of the criticisms that have been made of it in other reviews are justified – but I would counter that by noting many may be slamming it because they don’t like the politics. Empathy may be a dirty word now in Tory Britain, but this show is chock full of it – which is exactly why I like it.

Check the first episode out here on 4od:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derek/4od

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Life’s Too Short

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are at it again, writing and directing their latest situation comedy for the BBC.

Life’s Too Short combines elements of The Office and Extras, but with a new slant on proceedings. This series features Warwick Davies (Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi, Willow) as the lead role and all the things he gets up to in order to raise his profile and drag himself out of the massive tax debt he has run up. It transpires very quickly that this is due to his incompetent accountant who he can’t get rid of, as he considers him a friend.

Warwick Davies is a brilliant actor and although he has obviously taken influence from Gervais for this role, he performs as if he has been in comedy for years and should not be overlooked….. no pun intended!

Whereas The Office is a full on Mockumentary, Gervais and Merchant have cleverly designed this sitcom to feel a lot more like an actual documentary, as everybody plays themselves (albeit characterisations of themselves) and includes references to actual events which makes for great comedy and even more cringe-worthy situations than you have seen before. The correlation with Extras comes from the inclusion of film stars, although because of Ricky Gervais’ Hollywood status he is now able to incorporate the likes of Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp, both delivering outstanding comedic performances in very different ways.

I did notice a few people on social networks being quite negative about the show after the first episode, with the main criticism being; it was just more David Brent but out and about and played by a dwarf, however I personally think there is much more to it than that and with the self referential jokes included in the second episode, it is clear that the potential for public opinion swaying that way was not lost on the creators.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet and/or enjoyed any of their previous work. Gervais and Merchant are two of the best comedy writers around at the moment and long may their careers continue.

Click here to catch up on BBCiPlayer.