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‘Derek’ is funny but frustrating

With each new member of its inaugural rollout, Netflix continues its creative course of conservative innovation.

It has the star-studded drama (House of Cards), a little horror for the young folk (Hemlock Grove), the iconic re-issue (Arrested Development), and a sassy dramedy (Orange Is the New Black). Really, all that’s missing from this cable template is a period piece and something new from Ricky Gervais.

And now, here’s something new from Ricky Gervais.

Derek, which appeared in its seven-episode entirety Thursday, is a heartbreaking mess of a show. It is, by turns, hilarious and histrionic, illuminating and infuriating. It will make you laugh, and it will make you cry. But it will also make you want to tear your hair out in frustration before taking to Twitter to ask Gervais to please dear God let someone else direct next time.

Set in a financially struggling old folks home, Derek is an ode to those whose lives are given over to others and an unapologetic treatise on the importance of being kind. Anyone who finds such a message surprising, given its source, hasn’t been following Gervais’ career very closely.

All comedy is rooted in pain, and Gervais’ pain has always been on display. The Office was a paean to self-delusion, Extras a treatise on addiction to fame. A comedian with an insistent moral code, Gervais thrives on saying outrageous things and then acting surprised when people become outraged; it’s all about reaction.

Which is why he almost always swings big, and Derek is his biggest swing yet. Following in a theatrical tradition tracing from Flowers for Algernon to Rain Man, he plays Derek, a non-specifically intellectually challenged man who loves animals, old people, and Hannah (Kerry Godliman), not necessarily in that order.

Hannah runs Broadhill, a small improvised retirement home that functions as family for both its residents and its staff. The old folk of Derek are treated with admirable respect and are mercifully unburdened by the quaint lasciviousness / profanity / racism so often forced upon senior characters. (Derek’s overwhelming soundtrack, however, does imply an unfortunate, and unnecessary, saintliness.)

Likewise, Hannah is a miracle of both believability and emotional resonance. Godliman is the best thing about Derek, which, to his credit, Gervais seems more than happy to acknowledge.

The rest of the cast … well, Kev (David Earl) is a man only Derek could love. He’s grimy and obscene and, frankly, a big drag on the narrative for the price of a few penis jokes.

Longtime Gervais colleague Karl Pilkington fares better as Dougie, the jaded loner with the heart of gold. He’s on hand to deliver diatribes against the forces working against Broadhill. 

Derek is the heart of Broadhill. And if you don’t believe it, you will be told several times per episode, which quickly becomes irritating. Though not as irritating as Gervais’ unfortunate reliance on physical tics — slouched shoulders, bad hair, an absurdly overworked under bite, crazy sweaters — to define his character.

Derek follows the mockumentary style and when Gervais isn’t consumed with looking goofy, when he is avoiding the camera’s eye as he speaks of love and loss and his own understanding of the universe, Derek is a thing of quiet beauty. It’s mournful, wise, and serene.

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