The good news: Ricky Gervais' Derek isn't the distasteful portrait of a mentally-disabled man many assumed it would be (based on the original sketch that featured a questionable version of the same character). The bad news: Derek was nevertheless a largely tedious half-hour that offered few laughs amidst an oppressively earnest atmosphere.
Derek, billed as a "one-off comedy-drama", perhaps because Channel 4 got cold feet about committing to a full series without testing the water first, found Gervais flying solo without comedy partner Stephen Merchant, but he still relied on many of the tropes from The Office, Extras and Life's Too Short—the documentary format with talking heads, and even the beginnings of a workplace romance. I'm just surprised it wasn't a showbiz retirement home so Gervais could crowbar in celebrity cameos from Z-list old-timers.
The biggest weaknesses here was probably Gervais' decision to cast himself and pal Karl Pilkington in leading roles. When Gervais played David Brent on The Office, it worked because he was a virtual unknown at the time, so you could buy into the whole situation. But now Gervais is a global star, so putting him into a "documentary" instantly undoes whatever magic may have been created if he'd simply cast someone else. It also doesn't help that Gervais' portrayal of Derek, while nuanced and restrained in some respects, was still largely "Gervais with a bad haircut jutting his lower jaw out". Pilkington's presence was even more egregious, as there was no real attempt to disguise him as a different character. This was just the Idiot Abroad in a ludicrous Mick Miller wig, behaving in exactly the same manner as his usual self, only now we know his quips are scripted.
Still, Derek showed more heart in 30-minutes than 210-minutes of the awful Life's Too Short, even if the emotional manipulation was sometimes too much to bear. You can get away with marinating things in Ludovico Einaudi's "Nuvole Bianche" (also used frequently in Shane Meadows' This Is England TV series), but the whole show was so earnest in its attempts to make you cry that it wound up feeling very laborious. When the old lady died, it would have been nice to share in Derek's despair at losing a friend (again), but we didn't really know her. The show was more interested in building the relationship between Derek and professional care home worker Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the kindly middle-aged woman with a deep affection for this odd little man. The best scene of the show was seeing Hannah contend with a group of rude teenage girls making fun of Derek as they sat together in a pub.
Overall, I'm glad Derek wasn't offensive or distasteful, but I'm disappointed it contained no real laughs, drowned in mawkishness at times, and destroyed its own reality by casting Gervais and Pilkington (whom you can't separate from their real-life persona's nowadays). Maybe a full series pickup will enable Gervais to get the recipe right, and I wouldn't be against that because Derek's a less irritating entity than Life's Too Short, but I can't say I'm all that keen to see more of sweet outsider Derek Noakes.
written & directed by Ricky Gervais / 12 April 2012 / Channel 4