Derek: the death knell for Ricky Gervais’s talent

Christian Butler

Topics Culture

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Derek, the second series of which is currently showing on Channel 4, follows a middle-aged man with a conveniently vague mental disability working in an old folks’ home. It’s not so much the story of its inhabitants dying as the death of Ricky Gervais’s talent. Why was The Office a globe-conquering comedy classic, while Derek feels cheaper than an episode of When the Whistle Blows?

It’s easy to dismiss Derek, another mockumentary with awkward humour, as a formula that’s been done to death by Gervais, but that doesn’t do justice to just how godawful Derek is.

The key to the success of The Office was its universality: David Brent was every buffoonish boss you ever worked for, Tim was the everyman stuck in a dead-end job. Derek, on the other hand, doesn’t even exist in society as we know it. The character of Derek has no life outside the sheltered world of the retirement home, so the characters are never challenged with the problems of everyday life.

Moreover, The Office had to be a mockumentary – the genius of David Brent was how his ego fed off the cameras, and changed his entire personality in their presence. Derek, meanwhile, doesn’t demand to be a mockumentary. It seems to be a lazy way for characters to deliver exposition straight to camera, and a low-budget way of filming a TV comedy.

The Office even felt like a documentary – remember those transitions between scenes like the close-ups of printers and background characters on the phone? Derek can’t stand to lose a second of its incredibly dumb comedy.

In the first episode of the new series, one such dumb sequence displays a carer at the home talking about trying to have a baby. A resident explains the specifics of sexual intercourse to Derek, because an old person saying rude words is very sophisticated comedy.

It reminds me of the childish pranks Tim and Dawn would play on Gareth in The Office. That was funny because it said so much about the characters – that Gareth would be angered by something so silly, that Tim needed such juvenile japes to get through the working day, that something so simple could add to the will they/won’t they relationship of Dawn and Tim. Derek doesn’t bother with any of that – it’s a codger saying ‘vagina’ and nothing more.

The saddest thing about Derek is not its morbid setting, but Ricky Gervais himself. Forget the controversy of whether the show mocks the mentally disabled – Ricky Gervais’s acting is insulting enough. His badly kept fringe and his gaping mouth are just as pathetic as the wig and glasses Andy Millman wore in When the Whistle Blows.

Of course, the difference between The Office and Derek is easy to summarise: one is funny, the other is not. Perhaps the absence of Stephen Merchant behind the scenes has fuelled all of Gervais’s worst habits, but then again, the duo’s Life’s Too Short was just as appalling.

Actually, that’s a good point: life’s too short. I’m never watching another episode of Derek ever again.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

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Topics Culture


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