If you told me before I sat down to watch Ricky Gervais’ new show "Derek" that I would end up crying in front of my computer, I would've never believed you. Crying with laughter like I did during "Extras"? Sure. Cringing with second-hand embarrassment, "Office"-style? Pretty much par for the course with Gervais. But not this time. "Derek" is different.
"I wanted to stop laughing at characters and root for them a bit more," said Gervais in a phone interview. "He’s my favourite character I’ve ever created and played. And he’s the first hero I’ve played. And I think Derek is the nicest person in the world."
I can’t express enough how much you’ll want to reach through your screen and hug this man.
The seven-episode series, premiering September 12 on Netflix, is arguably Gervais’ finest work yet, allowing him to be both funny and vulnerable. Gervais created, wrote, directed and stars in the show as the titular character, a socially awkward and strange looking 50-year-old man with a heart of gold who works in a retirement home in England with his oddball friends.
Derek spends his time with Dougie, the caretaker of Broadhill Retirement Home, Kev, an unemployed faux sex addict who Derek more or less takes in, and Hannah, the devoted home manager who Derek is in love with.
With these ordinary characters Gervais strikes gold, and strikes right to the heart of the viewer. "Sometimes we dismiss these people that we meet because we think they haven’t got extraordinary things to tell us, but they do," he said.
It’s a story of underdogs sticking together to combat the cold, unfeeling outside world. And it might even make you a little uncomfortable at first, but despite Derek’s hunched-over shuffle and excited tics and Dougie’s "worst haircut on planet Earth," we eventually come to learn what Gervais is trying to teach us: "Kindness trumps everything."
The show and its characters feel so real and sympathetic for two reasons: the first being the use of Gervais’ trademark mockumentary style, which connects the viewer directly to the most intimate moments, and allows characters a chance to reflect.
The second reason is Gervais grew up listening to stories of care homes himself. "I try to always write about what I know, and most of my family were carers and still are. So I've had stories of retirement homes coming at me for the last 30 years," he said.
This familiarity with the places where many spend their last days (and where hardly anyone likes to visit) comes through in Gervais’ handling of the sadly sweet moments of the show. "I noticed that there were funny stories and sad stories, and even some sad stories were funny because I think that’s what humour’s for. It’s to get us through hard times."
Derek, childlike in his lack of filter, says just about whatever he’s thinking, so expect many of Gervais’ signature awkward moments. Just don’t be without a box of tissues when you inevitably plow through all seven episodes in one sitting (ah, the beauty of Netflix). Gervais himself is just as excited to pair up with Netflix; not one to prefer mainstream network channels, his goal has always been to get the most viewers, "but at no compromise."
For him, Netflix is the best of both worlds, and on the cutting edge to boot. "It’s the internet, so it’s a guaranteed huge global audience but with the artistic freedom of a fringe channel. So it was made for me. Netflix was made for me."
And so was "Derek." Yes, Gervais did create him (fun fact: the character has been in Gervais’ repertoire since the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival) but Derek is Gervais’ role of a lifetime.
"Honestly, I snap into Derek. I could be Derek for the rest of my life."
"Derek" premieres on Thursday Sept 12 at 12:01 PT on Netflix.