Ricky Gervais is a bastard. A brilliant bastard that I am ridiculously jealous of.
Not only is he hilarious. Not only has he co-created two of the greatest sitcoms of the last twenty years. Not only did he introduce the world to the endlessly entertaining Karl Pilkington. He has also had a hand in crafting some of the most emotionally engaging characters on television.
His most recent effort, Derek, is his crowning achievement.
Ricky plays Derek Noakes, a potentially autistic man working as a caregiver for the elderly. His boss is an extraordinary woman named Hannah who has invested all of herself into her work. His best friends are the bitter handyman Dougie (Karl Pilkington in a stunning hairpiece), and the unemployed, sex-obsessed, slob, Kev. Derek’s family are the elderly residents of Broad Hill. He loves them all fiercely.
This show could have gone so wrong. Gervais is known for playing pretty despicable characters. On top of that, his public image still hasn’t quite fully healed since his first stint as host of The Golden Globes. There remain those who stubbornly perceive him to be mean-spirited and cruel. You know, because taking jabs at the overprivileged of Hollywood is such an atrocity.
Of course there was a bit of controversy before the show aired. Understandably the idea of Gervais portraying someone who might be mentally disabled is a tough one to swallow – on paper, anyway. Mr. Gervais rises above such reservations by making Derek a kind, caring, funny, and productive member of his little community. His performance is so sincere and the character so genuine that you fall in love with him at once.
Derek has the startling ability to see into the core goodness of everyon. And if you’re being ignorant or prejudice, he’ll call you out on it. While we the viewers are governed by our self-consciousness and insecurities, Derek has no time for that.
When he laughs, you laugh with him, not at him. When he cries, you feel his pain as if it were your own. And when his lack of intelligence is the butt of a joke, it’s funny not because of his naiveté, but because of our own. Derek brings it out of us, forces us to examine it, and laugh at it.
(mild spoiler) A scene which demonstrates this happens in episode four. Dougie tries to get rid of a ceramic frog he thinks is crap by sending it to be sold at a rummage sale. Derek returns with the frog, thinking it would be a great companion for the frog they already have. Dougie, frustrated that he couldn’t get rid of the thing, tries explaining that it isn’t a new one, it’s the same exact frog, and fails. Their back and forth is hysterical. It’s not funny because Derek isn’t clever enough to understand. It’s funny because Dougie was being a cynical, presumptuous snob and can’t get away from it.
There are so many powerful moments I simply can’t put their affect on me into words sufficient enough to properly represent them. By the end of each episode I was in tears. Sometimes from joy, sometimes sadness, most times both. This is a show that invites you to reflect on what our lives amounted to in the short time we have and how to try and appreciate as much of it as possible.
We could all be a little more like Derek.
(You can now watch all seven episodes of Derek on Netflix. Please do so.)