Ricky Gervais’ “Derek:” All binge, not enough cringe

We don't recommend watching all of Ricky Gervais' new series at once

Topics: Derek, Ricky Gervais, Netflix, binge-, TV, Television,

Ricky Gervais' "Derek:" All binge, not enough cringeRicky Gervais in "Derek" (Credit: Netflix)

With so many television networks rolling out their fall seasons, ads for new and returning shows are everywhere. Depending on what magazines you read, websites you visited or subway platforms you frequented this month, you may have missed announcements for “Derek,” a Netflix series that debuted last week. In keeping with Netflix’s current business model, all seven episodes of the series’ first season became available on Sept. 12. “Derek” stars Ricky Gervais, who also writes and directs, as an awkward 50-ish employee at a nursing home for the elderly.

We live in a TV watcher’s paradise. More and more frequently we get to choose when, where and at what pace to consume television. This is generally viewed as an improvement over having to wait for the Big 4 to dole out much-anticipated hits of “L.A. Law,” “Moonlighting” or “The Cosby Show,” surviving only on infuriating “on next week’s episode” teasers. That said, I’ve started to wonder what, if any, are the effects of watching serialized storytelling indiscriminately in great, big chunks. Assuming a story is physically broken into pieces by its own creators, what is the impact — besides alleviating the viewer’s impatience — of gulping the whole thing down in one swallow?

I decided, on a whim, to try this experiment last night with “Derek.” There are only seven, roughly half-hour episodes done in the easily digested if overused mockumentary style of “The Office” and “Modern Family.” So whether I got fully immersed in it or not, I knew it would not be the time-suck of, say, trying to sit through a season of “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men.” Full disclosure: Short episodes or not, I did not make it. I started “Derek” around 10 p.m. and was asleep by the fifth episode. I finished the remaining two episodes this morning without showering or eating breakfast. That’s kind of like a single session.

“Derek’s” first season aired last year in the U.K. and much has been written about the show’s sensitivity, or lack thereof, to issues of mental illness or disability. The controversy revolves around the title character whom Gervais invests with a jutting jaw, bent back and and over-eager, shuffling gait. His halting speech, obsession with wrestling and cute animals on YouTube suggest a childlike, underdeveloped mind. Gervais will not specify that Derek is anything other than … well, sweet and different. However, other characters — particularly the cruel ones — have speculated that Broad Hill’s most beloved employee may be autistic or otherwise disabled.

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Gervais has, perhaps, escaped deeper criticism because the character of Derek is basically unimpeachable despite his obvious physical and mental limitations. He lives to help others. He is practically a Betazoid when it comes to empathy. Kindness is his default state of being. When outside forces mildly threaten the security of the nursing home, he mostly bumbles to the rescue with wide-eyed earnestness. In one of the show’s dryer, funnier moments, Derek confesses to pretending not to understanding certain jokes just to frustrate the teller. His intention seems self-serving, but really it just reinforces everyone else’s opinion of him and maintains the home’s peaceful status quo.

Broad Hill is run by Hannah, a stalwart administrator whose dedication to caring for others at the expense of her own social life recalls Laura Linney in “Love Actually.” Kerry Godliman is consistently endearing and occasionally heartbreaking in the part, but like most of the fold on “Derek,” she is at her best when her character surprises us. After a condescending former schoolmate visits the home, the generally placating Hannah remarks in confessional, “She hasn’t changed at all, really. She always was a cunt.”  OK, sure, the line is a bit crude and easy, but “Derek” begs for a bit more edge. Otherwise, you’re left with Derek’s tedious innocence versus the well-meaning but pessimistic rants of Broad Hill’s surly handyman, Dougie, played by Karl Pilkington. Derek and Dougie’s filthy, sex-obsessed friend Kev is the show’s most blatantly false note, overacted by David Earl and written not as a character but as the pervy antithesis to all the swell intentions bubbling over at Broad Hill.

Selfish urchins and petty thieves come to Broad Hill and see the error of their ways in under 24 hours. Septuagenarians offer predictably sage advice and smile when serenaded by a changed rapper. Whether or not you’ve seen the fantastic “The Office” or “Extras” or any of Gervais’ lesser creations, there are moments during “Derek” when you wholly expect a twist, a darkening in the good nature of its core inhabitants — if only to lead them toward redemption later. But that natural ripple in the drama never truly comes. “Derek” descends into, and becomes mired in saccharine all too quickly …

Or does it?

I suggest that this show with its particular flaws suffers heavily during binge watching. Gervais’ physicality — the shifting grin, the constant swiping at his lank, oily hair — do not bear up under consistent scrutiny. It’s like watching Gilly or some other vaguely amusing character from a “Saturday Night Live” skit for three hours. And other than a sudden and uncomfortable development in the season finale, the denizens of Broad Hill seem to have revealed their goals and motivations fully by the third episode. Most discerning television viewers look for an arc these days — even in the most traditional sitcoms. And there’s the matter of all of “Derek’s” unrelenting melancholic sweetness. Even after enjoying an episode, I could have used a week to come down from the sugar high.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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