With his new show Derek, out tomorrow on Netflix, Ricky Gervais is making the pitch that he's actually a kind person, despite his reputation for nastiness. But the the show—while being abundantly sweet, saccharine even—is such a jumble of mixed messages that at times it's hard not to find Gervais's supposedly good intentions suspect.
Derek tells the story of a group of people working as caretakers at a home for the elderly, with a focus on the titular character played by Gervais. In the press tour leading up to Derek's release, Gervais has made a pointed effort to put the person who created Derek at odds with the man who dreamed up jerky David Brent of the U.K. version of The Office. Basically, Gervais wants to use Derek to make you think he's a nice guy. "What seems to be surprising to people is that I have a kind streak," he said at a screening last week, according to Variety. In a profile of Gervais in The Hollywood Reporter last month, Lacey Rose writes: "Gervais is betting that his audience is ready for a kinder persona that eschews laughs for introspection and, in certain cases, tears, as it grapples with helplessness and death with a humanity not often seen in Gervais' work."
The sincerity of that "kind streak" came under fire when the pilot aired in Britain in 2012. (The rest of the show aired in Britain in early 2013.) Though he makes Derek practically divine, a good man with a good heart who just cares about people around him, Gervais also gives Derek hunched shoulders, a shuffling walk, and a jutted-out chin that is constantly in motion. Derek appears to have some sort of mental handicap, though it's never defined. Back when the show first premiered in Britain, Christopher Stevens, writing as the father of an autistic son in the Daily Mail, called Gervais hypocritical. In his work outside of the show, Gervais has faced backlash for using the word "mong," a derogatory term for a disabled person. "He sniggers on Twitter about ‘mongs’ and then pretends that Derek is a sensitive, enlightened look at disability and prejudice," Stevens wrote. Gervais has argued that Derek isn't disabled at all.
Throughout the show, other characters—especially the home's manager Hannah—praise Derek for just how good a person he is. Those outside Derek's comfortable, and comforting, world ask if Derek is autistic or if he should even be working there. They are cartoonishly cruel characters, monsters for pointing out Derek's obvious, well, difference. And yet Gervais's own characterization seems intended to make the viewer gawk. It often feels like he's trying to have it both ways.
There's nothing really subtle about Derek, nor the show named after him. The humor, when there is any, tends to be broad, even crass. For instance, in one episode the character Kev, an unemployed lout who has latched himself onto Derek and his friends, farts and poops his pants. In another, Kev strides into the home with a grotesquely obese woman on his arm bragging about all the sex they had.
When the show wants to strike a poignant note, it turns sappy. In one episode, following a party, a montage of the elderly residents of the home falling asleep after a party is interspersed with vintage-looking video of youthful frolicking. By the last episode, which swaps out the show's usual overbearing piano score with the Coldplay song "Fix You," even Kev has some wisdom to share on the meaning of life. It's all so blunt that you wonder whether Gervais—a man known for his biting, caustic wit—really wants us to be taking it all that seriously. Though Gervais has said that Derek is him "[leaving] behind the veil of irony," the show is so obvious you can't help thinking that perhaps some of the sweetness is ironic. And if that's the case, then what's the point?