Writer: Ricky Gervais
Director: Ricky Gervais
The pilot episode of Derek, the latest sitcom from the mind of The Office creator Ricky Gervais, divided opinion when it aired last year. Many found it to be heartwarming and far less cynical than Gervais's previous comedies, while others bemoaned Gervais's portrayal of a character with a purported nondescript mental illness. Personally, I found myself concurring with both sides of the fence.
Gervais's slack-jawed portrayal of Derek Noakes, a care home worker with a hopelessly optimistic outlook on life, was a little hit and miss in the pilot, with it being very apparent that Gervais was a writer first, an actor second. However, it had a certain charm to it, mostly thanks to its terrific supporting cast. But how does the first official episode of season one hold up?
The narrative in episode one centres around a council inspection of the Broad Hill retirement home. As described by the care home's manager Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the council do not care about what's best for the elderly, but about funding, budgets and other stuff only evil people in sitcoms care about. The council interrogate the care home's staff, including Dougie (Karl Pilkington), who visibly doesn't take kindly to their subtle suggestions that he is unsuitable for his job at Broad Hill.
Dougie informs us (Derek is - you guessed it - a mockumentary) that it's unfair to hassle the old folk by shutting Broad Hill down and moving them elsewhere, and the reluctance of the elderly to accept change also rings true for the staff of Broad Hill. Hannah suggests organising a fundraiser and asking people to sign a petition to keep the care home afloat, which sees Dougie, Derek and perverted layabout Kev (David Earl) taking to the streets in order to get some signatures. Unsurprisingly they aren't successful, as Kev spends the majority of his time accosting women whilst Derek scares people off with his forthrightness. It's soon revealed that Broad Hill will be shut down, and no amount of signatures will convince the council to act any differently, as they witnessed a number of errors during their stay (Kev being found naked in an old woman's bed being the most egregious) and are unwilling to allow Hannah to keep it running even if she can personally come up with the money.
One of the errors the council point to is Derek Noakes himself. "Are you... autistic?", a council worker asks uncomfortably. "If I'm autistic would it make me a different person?" Derek asks. "No", replies the council worker. "Then leave it."
It's clear that this is an indirect reference to the furore surrounding Gervais's portrayal of Derek, but ignoring the subcontext, it's a powerful line that reminds you of why a Gervais sitcom warrants such attention in the first place. Considering the spotlight thrusted on Gervais at every turn, whatever your opinion of him it is quite admirable that he remains so confident with his work. Regardless of what conclusion critics came to when they first saw Derek's open-mouthed expression and bowl haircut, Gervais clearly has a soft spot for his creation, perhaps even moreso than he had for Brent, Millman or Davis.
However, starring alongside Kerry Godliman and Karl Pilkington, who is surprisingly rather adept at this whole acting thing, Gervais is certainly the weak link in the line-up. The main issue with the opening episode of Derek is that its protagonist quite obviously suffers from some form of mental illness, yet has been written by and portrayed by someone who has no idea what that mental illness is. This makes Derek the kind of comedic idiot that wouldn't be out of place in a comedy from the 70's, the kind who uses the word "favouritest" and leaves his bottom jaw jutting open awkwardly.
I enjoyed Derek in spite of its protagonist, not because of him, but nonetheless I look forward to watching more of Kerry Godliman and Karl Pilkington next week.
Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor of Crave Online. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro