To say that I was expecting to enjoy Derek, the latest series to become available all at once to stream on Netflix in the US – though not an original series for the company, as it first aired on Channel 4 in the UK – would be something of an understatement. From his earliest work, I have been a big fan of Ricky Gervais; even before The Office debuted on the BBC, which brought him critical acclaim and propelled his career upwards, I enjoyed his appearances as a fake reporter on The 11 O’Clock Show – a program that was not completely dissimilar to the structure of The Daily Show (but a lot cruder – this piece is not for the easily offended, actually its not for the “quite difficult to offend either”). When The Office came along in 2001, not only did it instantly rank as one of my favorite shows of all time (and still does, in third place behind only The Wire and Breaking Bad), it also changed the way I viewed comedy, as well as being a “gateway show” for me discovering other series, most notably Curb Your Enthusiasm. My enjoyment of Gervais’s brand of humor continued with Extras; I listened to all of The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts and audiobooks (including highlights from the radio show that he did with Stephen Merchant), which introduced Karl Pilkington to the world and, despite my efforts to avoid it, made me crack up laughing on the subway; I found his hosting of Golden Globes hilarious; went to see him do stand up live twice; and liked his movies – in particular Cemetery Junction. Appearances from Ricky Gervais helped me discover Louie (and his scene from season 1 makes me laugh every time I watch it) and Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; while his cameo in an episode of Sesame Street my daughter was watching was also great.
What I am getting at is that I expected to like Derek from the start, though from Ricky Gervais’ tweets about the show, which aired in the UK at the beginning of the year, I realized that his usual brand of cynicism had been toned down – the main character’s defining trait was apparently kindness. I tried to avoid reading anything else about Derek as I wanted to come to it without much anticipation of what was going to happen and when I did watch it, very quickly after the episodes were all available, it completely blew me away. There were points when it was laugh-out-loud funny, in particular the character of Dougie, who is played by Karl Pilkington. Given that he is not an actor, his performance was perhaps the biggest surprise of the show, though Gervais wrote Dougie perfectly for his friend, making use of his ability to moan and his love of telling someone in no uncertain terms what he thinks of them (in particular, when he tells an interfering person from the council to “f*ck off”) to great comic effect. One of my favorite scenes from Derek was a talking head – it is filmed in a documentary style similar to The Office – was when Dougie was in the library complaining about everything, all the while a “Positive Psychology” is sitting in front of him.
The heart of the show is the warmth and kindness shown by both Derek and Hannah, the manager of the old people’s home he works at. In every single episode, they display love and affection that rubs off on other people, including two youngsters who are there for community service, but lose their attitude by the end of their sentences and recognize the value of being kind. Derek tells the audience in the very first episode “It does not matter if you’re clever or good looking, so long as you’re kind” and this is the overall message that the show adheres too. Kev, his other friend, who is mostly seen to be a disgusting, sex-obssessed idiot who likes to write swear words on crabs, by the end of the season is recognizing how his life would be much better if he could be more like his mate. Dougie too sees that, even though the constant talking at him while he is driving the minibus and wrestling him to the ground – which was mentioned in the podcasts as something Gervais does to Pilkington in the middle of meetings in real life – may annoy him, Derek basically has life right; he is happy and kind.
For a funny show like this one – an exchange between Derek and Dougie over a frog that went to a jumble sale was perhaps my favorite moment in the season – Derek was also incredibly moving and, foregoing the usual euphemisms of “the room got dusty”, it brought tears to my eyes in episodes 1 & 4, while the finale had me full on crying. This has been a mark of much of Ricky Gervais’s work – the Christmas specials of both The Office and Extras have heart-wrenching moments – but in this case it was more than simple sentimentality. Somehow, through Derek Noakes – this simple man who loves animals, animal videos on YouTube, and who wants to laugh and be nice to people – Gervais made me want to be a better person. If we could all be a little more like Derek, this world would definitely be a nicer place to live and he has one thing spot on: Kindness is magic. (Probably better words to live by than Kev’s: “Just shat meself. Meeting’s over”.
Finally, I wanted to say one more thing about Breaking Bad (and if you are not up to date, this is your warning to stop reading now!), which is heading into its final three episodes after an intense and heart-wrenching hour last week. While my predictions for the direction the show was going were mercifully wrong, I do think I know something that is going to happen in the final act. We are going to start rooting for Walter White once again. From the moment he was screaming to the neo-Nazis to stop shooting at Hank and Gomez in the desert, I realized that having taken his protagonist from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as he had promised, Vince Gilligan is now going to try to do the truly impossible and make the man who has become like Tony Montana redeemable. Viewers have got to see the big moment where finally Hank caught Heisenberg and put him in bracelets, but now – unless you also believe Butch and Sundance survived that assault in Bolivia – the DEA agent looks doomed and nobody there will be aware of the involvement of Walter White in the meth business. The M60, which we saw Walt purchasing at the start of season 5, and the ricin vile he collected from the shell of his house in the mid-season premiere are destined for somebody and that would appear to be Todd’s Uncle Jack, with perhaps the poison being for Lydia. If there is anyone who could make us once again root for Walt, after everything he has done to Brock, Jane, Jesse, Hank and his own family, then it is the leader of a ruthless gang of neo-Nazis. Perhaps he will be rescuing Jesse (although he has committed the cardinal sin of ratting) from their clutches, or restoring Hank’s good name – remember there are two DVDs of confessions still out there, the fake one that Heisenberg tried to blackmail Hank with and the real one by Pinkman, but one way or another, I imagine come the finale we will be fully on Walter White’s side once more.