When we think of reality in the context of TV programming, we're often thinking of a very specific reality. It's a twisted, Bravo-tomized reality—the reality of the relatively privileged, the over-processed, the venal, the scrabbling for fame. Ever the innovator, Ricky Gervais has created a show that depicts a different kind of reality—one that's a lot closer to actual reality for most people—and so far it’s earned him equal measures acclaim and alarm.
With his new Netflix series, debuting in the U.S. September 12, Gervais presents reality filtered through an unusual lens—that of the deeply unglamorous, the unrich, the unseen by society, the good.
Derek, created, written, directed by and starring Gervais, is about a group of people living and working in the Broad Hill retirement home. The cast of characters includes Dougie, the caretaker (played by longtime Gervais collaborator Karl Pilkington), Hannah, the angelic and iron-willed manager of the home (Kerry Godliman) and the pervy, drunken disaster Kev (David Earl). Gervais’ Derek Noakes is an odd, sweet, uncomplicated 50-year-old man who helps care for the institution’s elderly inhabitants. To call him simple would be to wade into the "controversy" that surrounded the show before it aired in the U.K. and that followed it here—the controversy around whether Gervais was portraying a mentally handicapped character and whether he was playing the character, and the mentally disabled in general, for laughs.
According to Gervais, Derek wasn’t written as someone who is disabled, but rather as a nerd, an outsider. And anyone who's watched the show can attest that far from making sport of Derek and his cohort, the show treats them as heroes. Derek is, oddly and simply enough, a show about kindness, and about ordinary people making the best of life. The series’ quiet look at life on the margins of society is as likely to make you cry as laugh (sometimes at the same time, which is a neat trick the show pulls off at several points). And that's perhaps why the project has stuck in some craws—it's likely that critics just didn't know what to make of, or label, either Derek the character or the show.
And it is an unusual creation, especially from a comedy persona as...unapologetic and, well, funny, as Gervais. Derek employs the same mockumentary format as The Office but where that show drew laughs from that almost unbearable discomfort that came from the characters’ lack of self awareness, there is not much ironic distance here. There is a lot of earnest emotion on show. In a more traditional sitcom, that emotion itself might provide the cringes. But Derek balances the sweetness with a lot of darkness and straight up sadness.
"It’s funny, even after people had seen it, they said, 'Well, we’re not sure what to call it,'" says Gervais of the friction around the show. "'Is it a comedy/drama? Is it drama? Is it a sitcom?' I always say, 'It’s whatever your life is, really. Is it funny with sad bits? Or sad with funny bits? It’s like that.'" Gervais himself calls it a sitcom but with the realism of the fake documentary format. "I’ve always tried to deal in realism," he says. "I think people forget that The Office was far from a knockabout comedy. It was about a man having a midlife crisis, a breakdown. There were certainly dark places I went to."
The debate about what exactly Derek was swirled around the show from the time it was being shot in the U.K. (the first season aired on Channel 4 in 2012). In fact Gervais even had time to write the controversy into the show itself—in one scene a bureaucrat looking to impose some austerity on the home interrogates Hannah on Derek’s mental state and on whether he’s autistic.
"I don't think it matters whether he is or he isn't but I've never considered him disabled," says Gervais. "I've considered him an outsider, a bit strange, but I made him like that because I wanted kindness to come along and trump everything. You see people like Derek and Kev and Dougie every day and you don't think anything of it. You dismiss them. But there are more Dougies and Dereks in the world than there are Brad Pitts and Johnny Depps. Most people’s lives didn’t turn out exactly as they’d planned. But they adapt. They've got lives and feelings and I wanted to delve into that the word of outsiders because I wanted them to be thrown together and I wanted the threat to be a cruel outside world." As for the controversy, Gervais brushes it off. "I think people have to say that about me now; it must be on preset on people’s laptops that controversial comes before my name."
The idea of Derek has been with Gervais a very long time—a version of the character appeared in the comic’s standup act going back to 2001. "I think Derek preexists David Brent," he says. His reemergence in this form was about finding the right project to do at the right time."
The other characters have even deeper roots. Hannah is "based on the women folk in my life," says Gervais, noting that his mother and several members of his family have worked as care givers. "I’ve been around that world for all my life."
Derek the character and the show’s premise did evolve significantly, though. Originally, Gervais had conceived of a documentary that followed Derek and a group of autograph hunters, with the concept of fame providing a backdrop and satiric layer. But Gervais felt that he’d already explored that topic in his life and work. "I just thought, Oh, I’ve done that to death," he says, with The Office, Extras, his standup show Fame and his notorious Golden Globes turns forming an unusually comprehensive study of the subject. "I just thought, no, the thing I love doing is the minutiae of real life. And this had everything for me and I put it in a world that I really knew. It was an evolution and everything clicked."
That world, a cash strapped retirement home, is one of the unusual things about the show. Setting a comedy among society's forgotten constituencies—old people left to languish in institutions by selfish kids, care workers stretched to breaking point for lack of resources, grumpy custodians with tragic hairlines who muddle through and end up doing the right thing—doesn’t sound like the stuff of hilarity, but Gervais strikes a balance between the bleak and the blackly funny.
Pilkington’s Dougie is a particularly inspired embodiment of that balance—a bitter realist with a soft heart. (In an episode in which the characters reflect on some of the bigger philosophical questions of life, he sums up: "From the moment you're born, someone gives you a slap to make you cry ... And that's it for the next 70 to 80 years; that's what life is—someone giving you a slapping and a load of crying"). It should be noted Dougie's also a particular source of comedy for his hair and his contemplations of his hair alone. Gervais says the hair was a part of his vision for the character from the outset. "I have the drawing I showed the makeup department to get the wig made. And it’s got the glasses as well. The glasses are real glasses because I couldn’t be bothered to have them made for him. So he had a headache at the end of every day." (After shooting concluded Gervais says he told Pilkington that "I based Dougie on him [Pilkington] if he had never met me").
While he skimped on the accessories, Gervais says he did more planning of shots for Derek than for his previous shows. His intention was to shoot the show as a sort of hybrid—informed by documentary style and the more filmic qualities of narrative TV and movies. "I was trying to do a documentary but documentaries have moved on since The Office," he says. "They are more sophisticated now and I wanted it to look beautiful and filmic because I thought that would aid the drama." That drama is of a quiet, emotional kind. Gervais does a great job of capturing the poignant details, like the tiny, telling reactions when a favorite elder friend passes away (yes, gentlest of all possible spoiler alerts: the old people die!) while creating what he calls a series of fables that contributed to a seven-episode arc.
Gervais says the episodes came together in the edit—he shot generously with two cameras and ended up with a lot of material." When you looked at it in the cold light of day the things that stayed weren't necessarily the funniest bits or the greatest performances or the funniest scenarios," he says. "The things that stayed were the things that drove the story. And soon you got sort of a lovely condensed fable. They turned out to be tiny fables."
The show seems especially well-suited for the at-will viewing afforded by Netflix, which Gervais calls "the future." As far as the future of Derek, Channel 4 has ordered new episodes and Gervais is in the process of writing season two. Looks like kindness has its rewards.
Be sure to check out Gervais in our inaugural installment of video series Creation Stories.
[Images courtesy of Netflix]