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'Derek': What is Ricky Gervais's new comedy pilot like? - Preview

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It's clear from the first few seconds of Derek that this is very much a Ricky Gervais production. The opening scene of his Channel 4 comedy pilot features the titular character (played by him) talk to the camera mockumentary-style and introduce some of the residents at the nursing home where he works, sparking off one of those old faithful moments full of stilted sentences and awkward interactions that have populated all of his previous efforts.

As the pilot continues there are talking heads, more cringeworthy cases of verbal diarrhoea and just a little smattering of physical comedy (such as Derek falling into a pond and streaking through the home). So yes, there is certainly the feeling with Gervais's debut directorial effort that it's all been seen before. And in that sense maybe it's a little disappointing.

Ricky Gervais, Derek,


But while the format may seem a bit too familiar, the character of Derek is a breath of fresh air from the egotistical, often obnoxious leads of past projects and it's his sunny charm that really sucks you to into the show.

Derek is a 49-year-old man with an underbite who views the world with innocent eyes and lives only to make others feel a little happier. He's the type who gets immense joy out of simple things like Deal Or No Deal, caring for worms and pudding. His love for the elderly residents of his nursing home and his few friends is completely pure. There's no ulterior motive for his actions - he's not craving popularity like David Brent, or desperate for fame like Andy of Extras.

As such it takes no effort at all to warm to him. It's a bit of a relief, really, to watch a Gervais show without having to really force yourself to excuse the lead character's most despicable moments - with Derek, there's the feeling that he can do no wrong. As Gervais himself explained, Derek is "better than us".

When the emotional moments inevitably come (remember, it's a Gervais show), they work so much better because like the other characters we want to see Derek safe and guarded. Gervais usually tugs on the heart strings by dragging someone from their high horse down to their lowest. The difference is that this time Derek is already so close to the bottom rung of society, it almost feels cruel.

Ricky Gervais's Derek Noakes teaser via Twitter

© Twitter



So while it's difficult to brand Derek as the funniest show in Gervais's catalog, it's definitely the most agonising. When Derek is tragically parted with Joan, a favorite companion at the home whose hand he used to hold as she went to sleep, he completely closes off. That head of his that before was always high and inquisitive drops down and his wide eyes become teary. We don't want to spoil it, but the scene that takes place in Joan's room after she's gone may just give you a lump in the throat and showcases Gervais's potential as a serious actor.

Although it's definitely a heartfelt creation, Gervais himself is prepared for Derek to be met with criticism. Although he insists otherwise, the character does seem to be tinged with disability, which is just asking for trouble so soon after mong-gate. Truth be told, he does come dangerously close to making fun of both the elderly and, in Derek, the culturally inferior - but it becomes clear soon enough that this isn't the intention.

Hopefully, viewers will get caught up in the simple joy of scenes like the one where Derek becomes transfixed on that video of a hamster on a piano, because it's one that's meant to be innocent and carefree, not seen as exploiting characteristics beyond the character's comprehension.

But Derek is by no means a one-man show. Karl Pilkington gives an effortlessly funny performance as Dougie, Derek's friend and landlord. Given that this is the Idiot Abroad star's first acting role, the character really is a thinly veiled version of Pilkington himself - even down to the "alwight"s. But that's no bad thing.

Karl Pilkington - The An Idiot Abroad star is 39 on Friday.

© Sky / Freddie Claire / Sky1 HD

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globe Awards

© NBC Universal



The character's miserable outlook fits Pilkington like a glove and he gets away with being the outlet for Gervais's trademark close to the bone moments because most of the dialog could have very well come out of his own mouth. The bit where he argues the elderly residents might as well be declared dead because they don't move and his frustrated outbursts as Derek/Gervais natters away in his ear may have well been broadcast on Xfm.

Another key player is Derek's best friend Hannah (Kerry Godliman), who took a temporary job at the residence 15 years ago and sticks around after hours because there's nothing for her at home. Admittedly she is the least advanced character of the ensemble, another one of Gervais's despondent women with heart - a natural bedfellow to Dawn of The Office and Maggie from Extras.

The close relationship she has with Derek is also nothing new - the scene where he outright asks a prospective love interest of Hannah's if he's gay when she told him to play it cool is proper Andy and Maggie stuff. But unlike the friendships that have propped up Gervais's other shows, this one's definitely about Derek needing to be protected. One of the best scenes in the pilot sees Hannah nonchalantly headbutt one of a group of chavettes mocking Derek in a pub, while he waits obliviously round the corner. Her platonic love for Derek seems to be unwavering and for that, the audience will quickly take to her.

Derek is by no means a new creation - he's been milling around in Gervais's head for about 12 years - but the character and the show does seem like a big step forward for the comedian. He's swapped the cynicism for kindness, and still kept the laughs. And while it would be nice to see Gervais do away with the talking heads and the character templates at some point, Derek is stirring enough to keep things from going stale. Gervais says he still hasn't heard about whether a full series is on the cards, but there's certainly room for Derek in the schedules - and the hearts of viewers.

Derek airs April 12 on Channel 4

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