The Telefile
Derek: A Sufficiently Depressing Comedy — A Comed-epressing, If You Will

After watching the first episode of Ricky Gervais' latest series Derek -- which makes its U.S. debut today on Netflix after having originally aired on the U.K.'s Channel 4 -- you'll be overwhelmed with a lot of feelings. Among others, you'll feel rather depressed, mildly uplifted and conflicted as to whether Gervais just pulled off his most sincere, stripped-down show yet, or a just a very emotionally manipulative one. (I happen to think there's a little bit of both going on here).

Gervais plays the titular Derek, a simpleton who works at a nursing home. Honestly, aside from maybe hospitals, is there a setting that fills you with more dread or discomfort than a nursing home? Since television has somehow managed to always make hospitals a sexy place (they never are), that left the nursing home setting pretty much open for the taking. While they've played parts in great shows before (Breaking Bad and The Simpsons certainly come to mind), they've rarely been the main setting. Gervais has hits the nail on the head of the inherently depressing nature of this environment, but like your own resounding guilt about not visiting the real-life homes, how much will you actually want to visit this one?

The weight of that choice rests on Derek -- a painfully sweet man who loves the simple things in life (like YouTube animal videos), takes pride in his work and remains optimistic despite having a rough go of it -- and the supporting characters who surround him. There's Hannah (played by Kerry Godliman), a fellow caregiver who Derek is in love with and fits the bill of all of Gervais' lead female characters like Dawn on The Office and Maggie on Extras: blonde, pretty, sweet, quiet and lonely. Then there's Derek's dumpy pals, including an autograph collecting aficionado named Kev (David Earl) and Dougie, a sour maintenance man played by Gervais cohort Karl Pilkington, basically playing himself in a truly horrible wig.

Then, of course, there are the old folks that Derek and co. are looking after at the home. There's Joan, a lovely old lady with "fluffy" hair, who Derek takes a liking to because she reminds him of his late mother. Joan and Derek enjoy the garden together and on Wednesdays he takes her to get lottery tickets. By the end of the first episode, Joan will have passed away, leaving Derek and you, the viewer, with nothing more to do than blubber like a baby. Derek says in a confessional (just like with The Office, Gervais goes for the mockumentary approach) that he would find comfort in the little things Joan would do for him, like tapping him on the head when he was sad, and that they both shared the outlook in life that, "Kindness is magic… it's more important to be kind than clever or good looking." Are you havin' a laugh yet, Gervais fans?!

Controversy has hounded Derek since its debut in the U.K., with some critics accusing Gervais of mocking the mentally disabled. (For his part, the actor/writer/director has denied that Derek is mentally challenged – he's just a special, genteel sort.) Others, meanwhile, have lambasted its obvious lump-in-the-throat melodrama that uses the slow and/or elderly as a vehicle for three-hanky life lessons. While Gervais doesn't set out to make Derek the butt of the jokes (in fact, when a woman crudely and openly mocks Derek at a bar, she gets a head-butt courtesy of Hannah), he still has Derek do silly sitcom tropes like sitting in his dessert or falling into a garden pond or running through the nursing home naked. Derek is a generally happy fellow, but it's hard to feel anything but heartbreak for him in most scenes.

For an overall depressing episode, Derek's premiere ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. At Joan's memorial service in the home Derek finally takes a liking to an odd bird granddaughter of one of the home's residents who has long had her eye on Derek. Meanwhile Hannah -- who spends a majority of the episode lamenting about her lonely, single existence (she says she often stays at work late because it's better to have their company than go back to an empty home) and pining after the handsome grandson of one of the newer residents -- gets asked out by said handsome grandson. This isn't exactly a setting that's staged for too many happy endings, so if I can end it on this note, why keep going?

Derek's heart is certainly in the right place, but it's hard to tell this early if Derek's is. I don't doubt for one second that Gervais doesn't have the utmost respect for the people who do Derek and Hannah's line of work, but it's hard to imagine that Gervais practices what he preaches with the "Kindness is king." I mean, we all saw his Golden Globes hosting gigs. Derek is a muddled mess when it comes to its tone, but if the overall message -- which is to be kind to others and be positive – resonates, maybe it's worth a shot, even if it feels too sentimental to be taken seriously.

All seven episodes of Derek are available to watch on Netflix.

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