Together they gave us The Office, and Gervais and Merchant may need to team up again to achieve greatness.
Controversy has a way of enveloping Ricky Gervais. If he’s not offending the obese, he’s using the word ‘mong.’ He has claimed, and continues to claim, that it’s all part of his intensified comedic persona. But regardless of his oft-maligned standup career, when it comes to the sitcom, it is within this faculty where he produces his finest work. Watching the slew of refuse that the BBC has signed off on in the past years (who is actually watching Mrs. Brown’s Boys?), I’m sure, has made many a viewer long for the excellence of The Office or Extras. So when Gervais’s pilot, Derek, aired on April 12th 2012 on Channel 4 – a channel known for allowing writers to have more creative space – comedy lovers everywhere held their breath in the confidence that Gervais was going to do it again, and do it alone. But alas, it fell short of the mark.
The general consensus amongst most critics of the first series of Ricky Gervais’s Derek was that it was ‘intermittently alright’
Derek currently holds an 8.2 rating on IMDb, which needs an explanation, as the general consensus amongst most critics of the first series was that it was ‘intermittently alright’, with a few probing into whether the show made a mockery of those living with learning difficulties. From guesswork, you can surmise that it was Gervais’s endless retweeting of glowing reviews, and his complete avoidance of any negative press, creating a manufactured accord that it was top draw programming. This deduction may be a tad Chomksy-esque, but believe me, there is no way that most of the website’s users weren’t somehow coerced into rating it that highly. I demand answers.
One key reason as to why most commentators have a problem with Derek is the one-dimensional characterisation. We have Derek Noakes, a care worker who loves animals, YouTube and the cult of celebrity (not really a stretch for Gervais to simulate if you follow his Twitter account), and he has a heart of gold. Supporting Gervais, there is Hannah (Kerry Godliman), a colleague of Derek’s, who often loses patience with him, but really she has a heart of gold. Further, we have a teenager in the form of Vicky (Holli Dempsey), who, interestingly, is working at the care home as part of her community service for stealing shoes. Don’t worry, though, as she has a heart of gold.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with creating a character that has bad and good in them; David Chase’s Tony Soprano taught us that. However, every episode of Derek’s first series seems to leap from one or to the other, with no shades in between. This can work in a sitcom, but when a show is packaged as a comedy drama, you really have to have more consideration for character development.
One of the main critiques of Hello Ladies was that it was too cold and that, visually, it felt too polished in its American sheen
Likewise, a comedy drama has the means to be more than just 30 minutes of gags, but rather an exploration of the human condition. Louis CK’s Louie is a shining example of how to sardonically explore important matters such as death and how one should best live their life, and is often achieved in subtle, yet touching ways. Derek, conversely, feels as if Gervais assumes his audience has been lobotomised, as anything emotive feels sledgehammered in with overwrought musical cues or clunky, obvious dialogue. It’s a strain to watch a programme being lumbered with so much schmaltz, especially when the audience doesn’t even have to work for it.
Regardless of the poor depth of characters and sentimentality, Derek’s principal violation is that it’s simply not very funny. Conversely, across the pond, Stephen Merchant’s HBO-backed Hello Ladies made a great start, leaving the mockumentary filmmaking style behind. The concept, that saw an English web designer looking for love in LA, felt current (a recent study suggests that there are more single adults than ever). Sadly, the show was cancelled at the start of the year, and one of the main critiques of the series was that it was too cold and that, visually, it felt too polished in its American sheen. Perhaps a gawky, pale Englishman and high definition cameras don’t mix.
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From examining the separate ventures that Merchant and Gervais have gone on, it’s clear the pair need each other. Without Merchant to rein in Gervais’s fondness for mawkishness, Tim and Dawn’s slow-burning tension may have been excessively overstated; but without Gervais’ warmth, The Office may have lacked the human qualities of David Brent, making us root for him – and without that for the audience to hold on to, nobody would have carried on watching.
Derek has commenced its second season, and the reviews are the same: not very amusing, and now past the point of ‘being a bit tired’. Over in the States, Merchant has been granted a consolatory hour-long special to cap off his American run. What would be paramount for the pair to do now is recharge their batteries, get back into their Hampstead Heath office and start unhurriedly working on something. What a pleasure it would be for comedy lovers if in a few years time they released something that came anywhere near to the landmark brilliance of their first collaboration. I guess we can just watch Office outtakes on YouTube until that day arrives.
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Featured image: C4
Inset images: C4; HBO