There is hardly a day that goes by where the opinion that Ricky Gervais’ career is over isn’t sprouted somewhere in the media. As with any great comedian, he tries to smash down the barriers of acceptance, making light of taboo topics and scenarios. Although, admittedly, sometimes he can come across as offensive and brash, surely this bravery should lauded and not criticised?
Derek, in which Gervais plays a…let’s say ‘challenged’ middle aged man who visits an old people’s home, piloted on Channel 4 last night to the sound of typically Gervais-esque mixed reviews.
It’s understandable to see why some people were offended; Gervais’ facial expressions and incredibly autistic tendencies were very noticeable. He’s been in trouble on Twitter recently regarding his use of the word ‘mong’ and his regularly self-uploaded photos of him pulling ‘mong’ faces, the same faces incidentally that Derek pulls. He’s said that the character isn’t actually disabled, but that’s highly unlikely to wash with anyone.
Even Gervais’ biggest fans wouldn’t have disputed that the first five minutes of the show started off on a slightly offensive note, but the programme’s saving grace was its expansion and increased levels of seriousness.
There are themes of love (made typically awkward between Derek’s carer and a visitor to the care home) and friendship (the typically dysfunctional one between Derek and the owner, played by Karl Pilkington) but it was the one of loss that was most hitting, showing that this programme isn’t just an excuse for Gervais to pull ‘mongy faces’ and shuffle around with a hunched back.
The passing away of an elderly woman in the home was a genuinely emotional moment, and humour quickly turned to sorrow and sympathy. No longer are you laughing at Derek, you’re feeling sorry for him, but in a compassionate way.
It’s Gervais’ ability to mix humour (slapstick at times) and genuine heartfelt emotion that saved this pilot. The scripting is certainly not as strong as The Office or Extras but it was never going to be.
It’s a brave step for Ricky Gervais, for both writing without long standing co-writer Stephen Merchant and for doing something relatively controversial and original.