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The sweet and sober charm of ‘Derek’

Dylan Lemert, Preface columnistBy Dylan Lemert
Columnist

   A man of diverse talent, Ricky Gervais is generally known for his outspoken nature and scathing brand of satire. The 52-year-old Brit is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of David Brent, the egotistically juvenile manager of Hernham Hogg paper company in the much-acclaimed U.K. version of “The Office.”

Watching Brent interact with (and resultingly degrade) his coworkers made for some of the most cringe-inducing television I’ve ever seen—in a good way. Unlike Steve Carell’s hopelessly endearing “Office” boss Michael Scott, Brent was more of a wild card, a pompous and unabashed idiot.

But as a character, and as a work of mockumentary fiction, he was near perfect.

However, Gervais’ Brent was no one-trick pony. It turns out dynamic characters actually happen to be the actor’s strong suit. This realization on my part comes after having recently plowed through all seven episodes of the Netflix-exclusive series “Derek.”

Written and directed by Gervais, he also stars in the titular role. Derek is the sweet, naive, misunderstood soul that is a far cry from Gervais’ previous acting endeavors. And Derek certainly is a character quite unlike any I’ve seen before, being at once one of the most quirky, sympathetic characters in recent memory.

Karl Pilkington (left) stars alongside Ricky Gervais (right) who portrays Derek, a quirky and lovable caretaker at an English nursing home. Photo via/Netflix

Karl Pilkington (left) stars alongside Ricky Gervais (right) who portrays Derek, a quirky and lovable caretaker at an English nursing home.
Photo via/Netflix

The show is set at an English nursing home, a quiet, downtrodden establishment staffed by Derek and his misfit friends. The reserved director of the home, Hannah, plays foil to Derek’s besties, pessimistic maintenance-guy Dougie and crass vagabond Kev.

Some normal sitcom-esque shenanigans abound, sure, and at times “Derek” feels oddly similar to “The Office.” It would also be spectacularly easy for the show to abuse the presence of the elderly to mean-spirited excess.

Instead (and maybe surprisingly, considering Gervais’ oftentimes disparaging track record), “Derek” takes the nobler route. “Derek” chooses to thrive on the sober parts of life, the messy bits, the parts where families are estranged and loneliness is just a reality of life.

It’s during these realizations where the show finds its sweet spot, and where I learned that depressing lows and comedic highs can coexist in television (“Derek” is a “dramedy” through and through). “Derek” isn’t a perfect show, but what it lacks in professionalism (some scenes—

and makeup jobs—seem a little too low-budget), it makes up for in warmth and sincerity.

Moments when Derek is tenderly tending to a baby bird who’s fallen out of its nest, or when he’s reuniting with his long-gone father for the first time: these are the sequences that give the show its heartbeat.

Which leads me to believe that in even something so temporal as TV on-demand—as in life—there’s a time and a place for all things, all emotions and paces and seasons.

And if “Derek,” specifically, is to teach us anything, it’s that there’s a place for all people, too.

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