The popular opinion about Ricky Gervais is that he co-wrote and co-directed one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, but that he has produced mediocre work ever since. While Gervais’ output since The Office has lacked that show’s incisiveness and originality, to dismiss Extras and Derek as substandard vanity projects is to miss out on some quality writing and fine comedic performances. Besides, if Gervais hasn’t created anything quite as good as The Office in recent years, then neither has anyone else and his “mediocre” work is still superior to many writers’ best efforts.
Set in a nursing home full of eccentric residents, hard-working carers and socially-awkward volunteers, Gervais’ offbeat Channel 4 sitcom Derek tells the story of a kind-hearted outsider (played by Gervais) and his struggle to answer life’s big existential questions while coming to terms with various emotional traumas, from the death of his elderly friends to estrangement from his long-lost father.
In what may be Gervais’s most melancholy and sentimental piece of work since the Extras finale, Derek: The Special wraps up the series with an hour-long episode based around Hannah (Kerry Goldiman) and Tom’s (Brett Goldstein) unconventional wedding. As the bride and groom prepare for a grim, no-thrills reception in the nursing home, cartoonish supporting character Kev’s (David Earl) longstanding battle with alcoholism and depression reaches crisis point and Derek is forced to confront the possibility of losing his best friend.
It’s not traditional sitcom subject matter, but then Derek isn’t a conventional show, using its odd blend of naturalistic faux-documentary and broad farce to explore heavy themes of grief, loss and survival in the face of despair. It mostly works, with the cast’s uniformly impressive performances smoothing over occasionally jarring transitions in tone, from touching sentiment to gross-out toilet humour. Godliman in particular is excellent, grounding the show in a reality that is otherwise missing from its outlandish scenarios and gallery of oddball characters.
Gervais is still capable of writing funny lines (“butterflies are the gayest insect”), and his imaginative staging of scenes, particularly Derek’s romantic candlelit dinner surrounded by on-looking pensioners, ensures that the laughter quotient remains high. It would only take a slight misstep to turn the series’ jet black humour into full-blown horror; and several sections of The Special are painfully bleak, but Gervais manages to successfully walk the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Much has been written about Gervais’ lead performance as Derek, with critics disagreeing as to whether the character is intended to be learning-disabled, and then whether his performance casts disability in a positive or negative light. Guardian journalist Tanya Gold once wrote that “[Gervais] feeds bigots their lines”, and that his comedy “feels more like lazy cruelty than satire”. Prominent disability campaigner Nicky Clark disagrees, saying of Derek: “I’ve laughed and cried…I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled”. For his part, Gervais has always denied that the character of Derek is supposed to suffer from a developmental disability. Watching the series, this denial feels more like an attempt to deflect criticism than an honest analysis of his performance, as Gervais’ Derek is reminiscent of every famous screen portrayal of autism from Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main.
However, to fixate on whether or not Derek is disabled is missing the point. It’s apparent from the outset that Gervais is attempting to champion the marginalised and vulnerable members of society, rather than mocking them. Over Derek’s 15 episodes, the show has continually extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion over cruelty, selfishness and greed. This message is either mawkish and patronising or profound and inspiring, depending on your point of view, but at the very least Gervais deserves credit for moving on from his ironic egotism to something approaching heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
If you’re already a fan of Derek, there is plenty to enjoy in The Special. It’s a downbeat, if cautiously optimistic, ending to a show that has always been preoccupied with life’s darker aspects. It may prove too gloomy and peculiar to win Gervais any new fans or to impress his doubters, but that may be the point. After all, he stopped paying attention to popular opinion a long time ago.
Derek: The Special is on Channel 4 on 22nd December 2014 at 10pm.