or: How far can you stretch out a comic trope before the public find you out?
During Extras there’s a moment where, while filming the show within a show, When the Whistle Blows, Gervais’s character Andy Milman has the dawning realisation that, for all his high minded aspiration and pretension, he’s become a joke for all the wrong reasons. Watching Derek felt a bit like that to me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some moments that are really quite lovely and tender, like care assistant Hannah (about 6 minutes in) confessing that she spends most of her time at work, even days off, just for the company and because she doesn’t want to go back to an empty house. But there’s a problem. and that problem is Gervais himself. His portrayal of Derek makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, mostly because it feels like a one note character, but also because it’s difficult to gauge the intent of the portrayal. Derek is a character with a long history, having first appeared on The 11 O’Clock Show, to some mixed opinion. And it’s clear that Derek has learning difficulties, so it’s difficult to gauge how the humour should be played. I’m not sure Gervais gets it right. Too often it feels that we should be laughing at Derek, purely because of his lack of understanding or his haplessness. This would be reasonable if Derek were unimpaired, because we would know that he could exercise control if he wanted, but here we don’t. We don’t know how much of what he’s doing is conscious and how much is down to an innate inability to cope or function in a “normal” way. It feels like too often we’re being encouraged to point and laugh at a freak, but in a knowing and arch way, which makes it even worse.
On the other hand, the moments after Joan’s death are really rather sweet and touching and that’s what makes this programme so annoying to me: that he is capable of scripting something so beautifully judged, but then spoils it by adding a disingenuous patina to so much else.
But this is something that has increasingly bothered me about Gervais’ output over time. I will admit to not liking the Office very much, mostly because there weren’t enough of the characters I liked enough to care about. Extras I enjoyed rather more. I still think the moments with Ronnie Corbett and David Bowie are just great pieces of comedy. And we get Kate Winslet dressed as a nun, which is also very nice. I also felt a little more depth to the Andy Milman character: more to empathise and engage with. It did end at exactly the right time, though. Because, like the Office, it was becoming harder to see just how much of what Gervais was doing was characterisation and how much was just acting as a way of expressing some of his own hang-ups and neuroses.
Life’s Too Short really annoyed me, though. Firstly, it was clunkingly unfunny. If you need evidence of that, just go back and check out episode one’s arse-clenching Liam Neeson cameo, where no one came out looking all that good. Secondly, it wasted Warwick Davis‘s talents by simply making him behave mostly like an avatar for Ricky Gervais. Then, of course, was the fact that it felt like it too too many cheap and lazy shots, like the diminishing returns in writing were kicking in. Perhaps this is why Gervais and Merchant are doing their own things right now, in an effort to recharge the creative batteries.
Maybe it’s best that Derek is left as a one-off.