November 8, 2013

Netflix Picks: Derek

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Ricky Gervais needs no introduction. The perennial funny man is quite the genius when it comes to sardonic comedy, and although his series are generally short-lived, they still manage to leave a mark on television in some form. His new series, Derek, is no different, but this time Ricky goes for a different genre. This isn’t The Office or Extras where you’re laughing at the characters. In fact, Ricky made me cry in the first episode, which is no easy feat (except for in 2011; that was the year of tears for me). And yeah, you may think I laughed so hard I cried, but that was actually not the case. I cried because Derek may be the most beautifully written character with a heart of gold, and Ricky plays him to perfection.

So what is this show about? Well, Derek is an assumedly high-functioning autistic man who works at a nursing home with his friends Dougie and Kev. For those who have watched the Gervais/Merchant reality series An Idiot Abroad, Dougie will look familiar as he is played by the daft, little Englishman, Karl Pilkington. Dougie is the comical janitor at the nursing home, while Kev … well, he doesn’t do much beyond being wildly inappropriate and talk about his member. Then there is Hannah, the managing nurse who fights to keep the nursing home open even if the budget is cut. She’ll make it work.

Before watching the show, I had my reservations about Ricky Gervais playing an autistic man. Based on his usual comedic repertoire of biting satire, I found this casting to be distasteful and something not to be made fun of. I decided to give the series a go anyway, and I was pleasantly surprised by his portrayal, as it’s not focused so much on his disability, but on how much of regular person he is. It is more about the relationships that make Derek who he is and what he can do for the elderly in this home. For example, in the aforementioned first episode, when his favorite resident dies, Derek cries because she always made him feel better, even when he made a mistake. He then delivers the best piece of advice she gave him: “Kindness is magic, Derek. It is more important to be kind than clever or good-looking,” which he follows with a heartwarming, “I’m not clever or good-looking but I’m kind.” Cue the tears. Where’s my Kleenex?

It is incredibly refreshing to see Ricky tackle a more emotional side, to see that maybe he is kind, too. I mean I loved when he was mean to Hollywood at his first Golden Globes, but that schtick can get old pretty quickly. You’ve got to change things up to remain relevant in such times of such short attention spans. Ricky has managed to take a good hard look at a underrepresented group and make us laugh and cry without being overly lachrymose. In actuality, I find this to be the most brilliant piece of television in a long time.