When Ricky Gervais returned to Twitter last year, he did so by posting a series of photos of himself posing as what he described as a ‘mong’. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, and he soon found himself in a bit of bother, as many people objected to his use of the word and its connotations with regards to people with learning difficulties. Although he at first tried to bat away any criticism, he eventually apologised and appeared to move on.
Unfortunately he moved on to the dreadful Life’s Too Short, the third sitcom he’s created with writing partner Stephen Merchant, about Warwick Davis’ life as a celebrity dwarf about town. It was a complete mess, lacking in laughs and relying on forced celebrity cameos, most of which didn’t even directly involve Davis, who was supposed to be the lead actor in the show. Ratings for the show dropped over its 7 episodes, with Gervais taking to Twitter to defend it, claiming that ‘haters’ were out to get him. His fall from grace continued with his weak hosting of this year’s Golden Globe awards, which was tame and predictable after he’d shocked everyone with a savage (but importantly very funny) routine last year.
His latest project is Derek, described as a comedy-drama, in which he plays the titular character, who appears to have learning difficulties. It also stars Karl Pilkington, the former producer of Gervais’ XFM radio show, who shot to fame after Gervais started podcasting, allowing Pilkington to air his outlandish and crazed sounding thoughts on almost everything. The trailers for it are hardly inspiring, in fact they make the show look like a disaster in the making, so it is not something that I’ve approached with excitement.
And here’s the worrying thing, Derek is actually much worse than I could have imagined. Unless it’s a very clever joke, Gervais has tried to make something poignant and touching, but it’s such a horrific misfire that he really should come out and tell everyone that it was a prank.
Derek works in a retirement home, where he’s nice to the people living there, and makes Hannah (Kerrie Godliman) who runs the home laugh. He’s friends with Douglas (Karl Pilkington), who likes to moan. Derek is played out as a documentary, a format Gervais has of course explored before, but there’s literally nothing about the show that will draw you in like The Office did. It’s a laboured exercise, with Gervais trying to show that he can act and has depth, but the program plays out with a series of clichés and is never funny or touching or sweet.
Douglas is basically just Karl being Karl, albeit in a ridiculous wig. If you’ve listened to their podcasts or watched An Idiot Abroad, you’ll know how much Gervais enjoys annoying Karl, and that’s what Derek does to Douglas, whether it’s asking him who’d win out of a ‘suicide bomber and a shark’, or setting Douglas off on a rant about letting old people just die instead of trying to fix them all the time (again, this is something covered extensively in their podcasts), it’s familiar ground, with the only difference being Gervais is in character and Karl is wearing glasses.
The incidental music throughout the program is grating too, with heartstring plucking piano music over most of it, trying to make everything seem oh so tragic and moving. But it never is, and instead you’ll just feel patronized if you have the misfortune of watching Derek, with Gervais holding your hand as he signposts the moments when you’re supposed to laugh and when you’re supposed to cry or be moved by what’s happening on screen.
But the show just isn’t funny at all, it’s not clever and it’s not moving. Gervais doesn’t cover much new terrority in Derek either. When a new arrival is shown around, Hannah takes a shine to her son Tom, and she later asks Derek to find out if he’s gay or not, by asking what TV shows and films he likes. Derek gets confused, and blurts out that Hannah wants to know if he is gay or not, and it’s a reminder of the kind of social awkwardness that’s always been a feature of Gervais’ work. You’ll recognise the moment from Darren’s date with Maggie in Extras, or the infamous Brent dance in The Office, but it just doesn’t ring true, especially when it’s made clear that Tom suddenly fancies Hannah and comes to the home to see her and not his mum.
The show ends with Joan, a woman Derek is closer to than the others, dying. This gives Gervais a chance to show off his acting chops, which he does by crying a bit and looking all sad and that. It’s a desperate move, and one which requires little effort on Gervais’ part. It rather sums up the whole sorry half hour. Whatever Gervais wanted Derek to be, it isn’t. It’s not funny, it’s not moving and it doesn’t make you think. He’s claimed that it’s a comment on Britain today, but it’s really just a failed experiment from a man struggling to maintain the success of his recent past.
I’m absolutely certain Ricky Gervais will take to Twitter and the media to rant that people just didn’t get it and that he is proud of Derek, but I don’t think anyone will be listening.