Thursday 12 April 2012


Everyone's talking about Derek so let's talk about Derek. But let me begin with a proviso straight off. This sort of show isn't my sort of thing at all. No great surprise to you I'm sure, given I had a hand in writing two series of Miranda. At the moment, there does seem to be quite a lot of comedy that's high on atmos and pathos, aiming to tug the heart strings rather than tickle the ribs. I'm thinking about programmes like Him and Her, The Cafe and Roger and Val Have Just Got In. These shows have found a devoted audience and critics seem to like them, but they're not for me. My saying they're rubbish or inferior would be like disliking raw fish and criticising a chef for serving sushi. You get the idea. (I do dislike raw fish, by and large)

So, to Derek. And I'm sure you can smell the elephant in the room. Is it right or moral? Is Ricky Gervais mocking people who clearly have severe learning difficulties? Despite previous comments and tweets by Gervais which were either thoughtless or intentionally provocative, I don't believe Derek is mean-spirited. Quite the opposite in fact. Derek is portrayed as being so kind and good that he's almost being held up as an example to the rest of us.

If anything the show is rather thoughtless with regard to the elderly who are treated as props. It seems odd that a show can take place in a nursing home and for no single elderly character to have a more than one or two meaningful lines. But the show's about Derek, not them. I understand that.

Flaws and Quests
Overall, though, we have a comic problem. In a comedy, lead characters need to have flaws on their character and clear quests. Moreover, these character flaws need to interfere with and frustrate their clear quests. The characters need to deserve their sufferings and trials because they don't listen to advice or they're proud or a snob. If Captain Mainwairing would only listen to Sergeant Wilson, he wouldn't make such a fool of himself. If Basil Fawlty weren't such a ludicrous snob, he might find he is much more calm and relaxed. If David Brent wasn't so sure he was a very good boss and a natural comedian, people might actually start to like him.

Derek has flaws, and they're not his fault, and so comedically it's hard to generate comedy stories, scenes and moments. It's okay for bad things to happen to Derek's friend, Dougie the Caretaker, played by Karl Pilkington, because he's mean about the old people and doesn't respect human life. In fact, he's saying the elderly have no quality of life - when his own is clearly lived in a small, dull bubble. It would have been nice to see this character called on this - and we do see that he fixed that picture he wanted to throw away. But it cost him nothing.

Now clearly, I'm banging on about formulaic comedy and lots of people would like to see something different or new or experimental. And that's fine. But most comedy is formulaic underneath, although it's often well disguised. In fact, it's unclear whether this is a comedy drama, or just a drama. Either way, characters needs quests, drives, flaws and set-backs.

The other problem for me was the casting. Ricky Gervais is obviously brilliant in The Office - and Extras. He also does a great job in Ghost Town, which is a lovely movie that works well for him. I didn't feel he carried this one off so well - partly because he's already bringing baggage to the part. And if the audience are watching baggage, they're missing the jokes. Others may feel differently, but I would have cast someone else in that part. Gervais clearly has an eye for casting because he's found another fantastic female lead in Kerry Godliman. But Gervais' performance made me feel uncomfortable, and that's not a good start. It also reminded me of the character with the wig and glasses Andy Milman plays in When the Whistle Blows - the sitcom within Extras. This is not a good thing.

Some have criticised the mock-doc format. It's true that the format didn't really add anything, but it's a ubiquitous shooting style now, so this didn't bother me one way or the other.

My other criticism would be that nothing really happened in the first ten minutes. I get that it was slow and going at its own pace, but it felt like the show was treading water. There was probably time to set up the old lady dying and Derek's relationship with her. There was probably time for Dougie the caretaker to get his comeuppance. But as with all of these things it is worth noting that Ricky Gervais makes more money in a day that I do in a year. He clearly knows what he's doing. But that's my boringly technical analysis of his show.


  1. What about his rejecting the girl who wants to be his girlfriend, and then realising he should accept her after his old lady friend dies? That is a kind of revelation, is it not? In which case he had a 'flaw', if you like, that is his fault. And so there is a justification, from the point of view of art, for his 'suffering' when the old lady dies. This is the principal story line as I saw it.

  2. What an excellent write-up, apart from Dougie who I think is just a frustrated and unfulfilled character waiting for some perspective, this is a great write up.

  3. "In a comedy, lead characters need to have flaws on their character and clear quests."
    I'm not sure I agree with this statement but I would say that Derek did have a clear quest - to be loved (in general, and by Hannah in particular). Typically of Ricky Gervais we were being challenged to consider whether we could laugh at Derek (and his quest), or be critical of him (he clearly had some self-awareness re. hannah). For me, your analysis sounds like an attempt to fit the show into a structure that it had no interest in fitting.

  4. yes, penge-com. I fully accept your point that Gervais had no interest in fitting the more standard sitcom structure. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in making that point. The fact is some people liked it and that's fine. I think it lacks clarity - which is what TV tends to thrive on. I didn't think Derek's quest was to be loved, although that's true of most people. But each to their own...

  5. Sarah Ballingal13 April 2012 at 13:50

    The trailers for this programme seemed to be shown at every available break. One showed Karl Pilkington's character refusing to talk about his life on camera, and the other just had Ricky's Gervais's character stroking an elderly lady's hair. These together were enough to put me off watching the programme at all, so I didn't. Sounds like I didn't miss anything.

  6. James

    I generally agree with you that the show wasn't intended to be mean spirited - it seemed that the program makers were presenting Derek as on our level, not picking on him per se. Having said that I laugh at Derek's comic business in the show. It didn't seem to fit. Things just happened to him, rather than

    It was quite moving in places, but I didn't find it very funny.

    I also wish Ricky Gervais wouldn't pretend that Derek doesn't having learning disabilities when he clearly does (eg "What would you do with £20,000?".)

    With something like this there is always a danger that the ignorant will laugh at Derek anyway despite the intentions of the program makers. That's the danger you get from labelling it a comedy. And Gervais and co can't control that. Perhaps the point he is making with the scene in the pub - it shows which side we are meant to be on.

    This also ties in with your previous post as well about who we can laugh at. I wrote about my own take on this on my blog in context of Derek here:

  7. James,

    Derek is an odd one, more of a Coma than a Dramedy. Everything is just thin and very one dimensional. Tom and Hannah's baby just happens, Dougie leaves and Geoff comes in changing the entire atmosphere in the process, but man alive is Geoff one dimensional, it's agony.

    Vicky and Kev really are the only interesting characters in my opinion, they have hidden depth which is touched upon but not explored much.

    If Derek shows us one thing, it's how important a good writing partner is. Gervais needs Merchant back.

    I disagree about your David Brent point though, Brent is an excellent boss which is why they don't like him. He's offered promotion and this is the reason the cameras were allowed in to start with. The Office workers are bemused by him as they have backstory (ie before the filming began) of what he is actually changing from and into. If that makes sense?

    Good blog though.