There’s a pretty common misconception out there that Ricky Gervais is mean.
This comes, perhaps, from Americans unfamiliar with his work whose primary introduction to the comedian was the Golden Globes, where he gleefully eviscerated entitled celebrities to the horror of said celebrities and subscribers of InTouch magazine (“leave Brangelina alone, you vile Brit!”). Or perhaps you might also feel this way if all you’ve seen of Gervais is the way he and Stephen Merchant made Karl Pilkington the butt of every joke on The Ricky Gervais Show and then giggled as they put him through hell for three seasons of An Idiot Abroad. But let’s not forget that this is the man behind The Office, one of the most hopeful, bighearted sitcoms of all time. Go back and rewatch Tim and Dawn’s kiss from the finale of that UK series, then try to tell me Gervais is a cynic.
It’s satisfying but not at all surprising, then, when—in-character as the titular, most-likely-autistic caretaker at a nursing home—a tearful Gervais delivers Derek’s thesis statement towards the end of its pilot after Joan, his favorite resident at the home, passes away: “She said ‘kindness is magic, Derek.’ She said it’s more important to be kind than clever or good-looking. I’m not clever or good-looking, but I’m kind.”
It’s a sentiment that wouldn’t sound at all out of place coming out of the mouth of a character on The Office, and in truth, Derek bears quite a resemblance to the series that made Gervais a star. It follows the same mockumentary format and chronicles the lives of a group of “ordinary” people trapped in a less-than-glamorous job. There’s Hannah, a Dawn/Pam-like colleague Derek fawns over, who’s pining after a relative of one of her elderly patients. There’s Douglas (played by Pilkington, in his first non-cameo acting role), the cranky repairman at the home who rooms with Derek. And of course, there’s Gervais as another well-intentioned goof swathed in awkwardness.
Gervais has never shied from political incorrectness, so the idea of him portraying a character who may be suffering from a mental handicap might elicit a few premature cringes, but his performance works—for the most part. He’s surprisingly adept at the more serious moments, like his weepy post-Joan-death talking head, his desperate yelps of “I’m drowning!” after falling into a few inches of water or the quietly affecting scene where he starts to knock on her door before entering to say goodbye, then—catching himself and realizing he’s banging on a dead woman’s door—turns his hand up in a half-shrug and walks in.
The humor proves to be a little more hit-or-miss. Some of the gags centered around Derek’s oddities are successful—watching him mouth along the words to a YouTube video called “Hamster on a Piano” was funny—but others (like a bus scene where he repeatedly calls Douglas’ name that felt similar to this old Family Guy bit) were just tired.
It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here; conflicts introduced at the beginning of the episode like Derek’s unrequited love for Hannah (and his apathy towards Mary, the awkward granddaughter of a resident at the home who insists he’s her boyfriend) and Hannah’s crush on someone who is certainly not Derek were seemingly resolved by the end of its 24 minutes. After Mary consoles Derek after Joan’s death, he announces Hannah needs a new boyfriend because he’s going with Mary now. Hannah gets asked out for a drink by the object of her affection, and we close on them leaving happily (with Derek tagging along, of course). These are plotlines that felt like they could be carried throughout the whole season—and maybe they will be—but the ending felt like too much too soon.
There are, however, plenty of reasons to keep tuning in and see how Derek progresses. Pilkington is strong as Douglas, even though he’s essentially playing himself, bluntly riffing on what he perceives to be an overly sentimental, confounding society as he’s done for years on The Ricky Gervais Show and An Idiot Abroad. And Gervais is sweet in the title role. Maybe this will be the show that’ll convince more viewers of what we’ve known to be true for years: this sharp-tongued comedian is actually a big softie.