In Derek, Ricky Gervais re-preaches the Sermon on the Mount. If Jesus pitched a show to Netflix it would be Derek – Ricky Gervais’s character piece set in a struggling British old people’s home. Gervais created the stunning The Office series for the BBC– and the mockumentary form that he perfected there is how he brings Derek to vibrant life.
(Kerry Godliman as “Hannah” with Ricky Gervais as “Derek.”)
If you watch this Netflix show and are waiting for the ironic underbelly of cynicism to show up you’ll be disappointed. Derek is a TV show that comes from some place where irony is traded for compassion. And it turns out that compassion can be as entertaining as it is moving. Call this show the post-Seinfeld era inoculation against terminal cynicism.
Here’s the story: While filming at a nursing home, a documentary crew captures the life of a socially awkward caregiver named Derek, a 49-year-old bachelor whose passions include Jesus Christ, animals, autographs and YouTube videos. He’s found his purpose in life. It’s to care for — and more importantly care about — the elderly residents of the retirement home he works in.
Ricky Gervais, produces and stars as Derek Noakes, a loyal English nursing home caretaker. Derek’s holy fool outlook makes him essential to the well being of his coworkers and friends, all of whom, in one way or another, can be described as society’s failures and rejects. As judged by Wall Street, these are all losers. As judged by what Vogue magazine says is cool these people are not worth a second glance.
As they struggle against prejudice, government bureaucracy, and constantly shrinking budgets to care for the elderly residents who depend on them, Derek and his friends also struggle to see each other as those who can be loved.
As someone who lost his 98-year old mother this last March, and who watched as she declined, I think the show captures both the sadness and humor found in accepting mortality. If only all elderly people had such honest and kind caretakers!
Gervais’ performance is stunningly good. So is Kerry Godliman’s, as Hannah. Hannah shows great compassion for every life she touches. (She’s the 15-year stalwart director of the home.) Hannah, also stands out with her hidden strength and desire to find love.
The man who created the “David Brent”of the original The Office, and Brent’s Disco Dance (!),
…has entered the realm of people like George Clooney and Bono, in other words the realm of a few rare famous rich people whose artistic choices transcend their original field. Like Bono and Clooney, Gervais is bent on trying to do some good with his talent, using his connectedness to uplift the unconnected.
Gervais has in other words, chosen to highlight someone on the edge of society, who would normally be ignored at best, derided at worst. In taking on the character of the rejected — Derek — Gervais has become – actually seems to have morphed into – the sort of person we all hurry past, try not to sit next to on subways, and either feel sorry for or contempt for.
Whatever Twitter might tell you about Ricky Gervais he is compassionate. Gervais is one of the good guys. In Derek’s skin he seems to want help create a world where, as Derek remembers one of the elderly women he cared for telling him, “Kindness is magic, more important than being good-looking or clever.”
It’s a brave man and even braver actor and comedian, who will bring us Jesus’ message without irony or a snigger. Gervais proves it’s possible to laugh and cry at the same time. And Gervais, the self-identified atheist, also proves that he understands the message of Jesus better than most of us Christians.