As someone who comes over all lachrymose at the merest pluck of my heartstrings I’d have expected the unrelenting soppiness of Derek to have reduced me to a weeping puddle of a man. After all, this was a labour of love from one of our finest comedy writers set in a care home and all to a soundtrack of Radiohead and Coldplay. This was potentially mush heaven.
Instead I watched it impassively throughout, my tear ducts as dry as Riesling, my mug set in a perma semi-scowl of stone.
That’s because, despite being such a wuss that I once sobbed into a plateful of spag bol at a particularly syrupy episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I draw the line at crying to cartoons.
And that’s precisely what Ricky Gervais’ latest venture amounted to; a hackneyed, contrived bag of shite full of two-dimensional creations that simply threw up one poorly set-up situation after another coldly designed to jolt our senses. I would no more emote to that than I would to a stranger rushing up to me in the street and randomly shouting out ‘A puppy with cancer’.
Prior to its launch the media hacks were sharpening their pens in anticipation of a Gervais offence-fest, particularly so as the main protagonist was rumoured to be autistic. In the event Derek’s condition was handled with kid gloves and the only offence lay with insulting the viewers’ emotional intelligence as basic rules of storytelling and characterisation were eschewed for short-cuts to get us to the next mawkish pay-off. Hannah, the lady who runs the care home, is an angel. We know this because we’re told about five times per episode. Derek himself is a kind-hearted selfless soul. We know this because we’re told about five times per episode. How about you let us work this out for ourselves Ricky? By perhaps crafting fully-rounded characters that develop and evolve and eventually become creations we relate to and feel warmth towards by their actions and our own volition. Isn’t that how drama, comedy, and indeed any form of fiction is supposed to f***ing work?
In a generous mood I’d suggest that Gervais was so determined to give the programme heart he forgot about putting life around it.
In a not-so-benevolent take it could be argued this was the corniest sixth-form dirge ever s**t-sprayed across our screens, full of cheap manipulation and paint-by-numbers sentimentality. It repeatedly sought pathos without remotely having the substance to justify such a response. This was exemplified by the final episode where Derek’s father appears from nowhere merely as a stooge to force along a false and affected finale. A character written in crayon we know nothing of this man or his history with his abandoned son. But who cares when we’ve got handy Hannah to once again offer us spoken cue cards as to how we should feel. “I’ve never seen Derek act like this before. Remember he’s such a kind-hearted and selfless soul. You may have forgotten that because it’s been a good few minutes since we last told you”. The series then concludes with this kind-hearted and selfless soul hugging what is essentially a prop and we’re supposed to blub our approval.
Compare this to the wrap-up of The Office. When Tim finally grew some balls and headed back to the party to kiss Dawn it felt ace because we'd previously shared countless frustrated glances and let-downs. When Brent stood up to Finch it was brilliant because we'd witnessed the latter dominate and influence him for two series. Who the f*** was this dishevelled old bloke? I went to make a brew and on my return I was immediately expected to care about him.
Similar disregard was given to each and every peripheral role. The woman who only cared to inherit her mother’s ring and Hannah’s snobbish friend from school were cartoonish villainous creations solely there as vehicles for their rousing undoing. They may as well have twirled moustaches and swished a cape and bore absolutely no relation to reality. An extra in Hollyoaks has more subtlety and depth and with each ridiculously far-fetched line they uttered I half-expected ‘Boo!’ to appear in subtitles. Then there’s the old folks themselves and here we come to a rather more serious failing. Gervais’ pious hammering home of the point that the elderly are vibrant and interesting members of society yet are generally over-looked and patronised would carry far more gravitas if he didn’t relegate them to non-speaking wallpaper roles himself – and in effect over-look and patronise them. Imagine if you will similar treatment regarding an ethnic minority. There would be uproar right? But hey these are just old folk; they’ll be dead soon anyway.
On one of the few occasions the octogenarian wallpaper were pushed front and centre you really wish Gervais hadn’t bothered as he focused in on them idling in their chairs deploying a corny, cloying dream sequence to demonstrate that hey, these people weren’t always aged you know. They were once young too just like you and me. With hopes and love and stuff. The cringe-worthy segment was only missing a wrinkly duffer thinking back to his Spitfire days whilst the music from the Hovis advert played. Come to think of it, surely a series as embarrassingly trite as this, that featured the elderly, would have some sort of ‘never in the field of human conflict’ moment? Ah here it arrived a week later, as a bad boy rioter on community service learns a valuable life lesson and raps about how these guys fought an actual war, not a turf one.
Jesus Christ, this was bordering on Byker Grove territory and to evoke a genuinely great sitcom Gervais mentions the war but doesn’t get away with it. So how to wrap this up? I have no idea. But seemingly by the flood of tears shed by the nation at such a shockingly-written, p**s-poor programme the traditional method of constructing a beginning, middle and end – and including substance within each – no longer applies. So instead simply picture Derek – aww lovable sweet Derek – gurning a smile at you, stroking a playful dog, and holding up a thumb. There, you feel all warm and fuzzy now don’t you.