First Watch: Derek – “Episode One” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Ricky Gervais has been busy since his British hit The Office. He wrote and directed another show , starred in a couple of Hollywood movies, performed in four comedy tours, wrote a best-selling book series, and hosted a world famous podcast. He’s even hosted a few award shows. Ricky must’ve missed the BBC because he’s back with another British sitcom: Derek.

Gervais plays Derek Noakes, the titular character — a socially inept care worker for the elderly. Derek’s coworkers include Hannah (Kerry Godliman), a fifteen-year veteran of the nursing home, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), the grumpy caretaker, and Kev (David Earl), Derek’s friend who hangs out.

Derek misrepresents itself in a number of ways; we should clear some things up. First, despite Gervais’s argument to the contrary, Derek is more than socially awkward. With his propensity to avoid eye contact, telltale shuffle, constant finger fiddling, and inability to understand a bit of social context, Derek falls somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. Though the imitation is meant to be comedic, it’s nowhere near offensive. In fact, it looks like Gervais took some advice from Tropic Thunder; there might be some BAFTA awards in his future.

Second, Derek is listed, almost universally, as a comedy-drama. Do not believe the listings, or you will be sucker-punched. We at Tonight’s Watch make a distinction between the Comedy-Drama and the Dramedy, in which case the latter puts drama first, using comedy as accent lighting, providing the luminous pathway between dark moments. Instead, Derek utilizes dark comedy — or comedy spun from a scene awkward enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable — in between emotional moments, providing a dimly lit path between moments of total darkness.

Finally, while this is not nearly as laugh-out-loud as I’d expect from Gervais, it’s not nearly as dark as I might have made it seem. The life parts of Derek do not rely on comedy, but on the heartfelt moments that force the audience to have the warmest feelings for the residents and employees of Broadhill retirement home: Derek’s philosophy of kindness above all else, Hannah standing up for Derek when he doesn’t know to defend himself, and Dougie breaking his facade of the curmudgeon to prove he does care for people. Derek might even squeeze a tear out some audiences, not because some moments are too dark to bear, but because watching Derek absorb and react to those moments is more than we expect.

Much like The Office, Derek is shot in mockumentary style. Also like The Office, Derek is completely character-based, relying on the leading man to carry the show. Gervais may use Derek as a character study, not only of a man who has been abandoned by the whole of a society he does not completely understand, but of the elderly persons living in the retirement home — society’s refuse. Yes, watch Derek, but remember: comedy plays second fiddle.

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