The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Derek Noakes, the titular character of Netflix's British import Derek.
That may be a surprising notion, given that Derek — a simple-minded man who works in an old-age home in Britain — is the creation of Ricky Gervais, whose stand-up comedy and past work on shows like The Office and Extras can be biting, to say the least. Even Gervais admits thatDerek, which he describes plainly (and accurately) as "a show about kindness," is less a departure from his previous projects and more a complete rejection of them.
"In recent years — and I'm culpable; I may even be one of the major driving forces in it — there's been a comedy of embarrassment, of excruciating social faux pas, the minutiae of human behavior, and usually the bad side," Gervais, who plays the lead role of Derek in addition to writing and directing the series, told TVGuide.com last week. "What's slightly different about [Derek] is, all those comedies and all the characters I've created before were sort of laughing at the blind spot, laughing at the difference between how the characters see themselves and how we see them. And with this, I've closed that blind spot. People are more sincere and more honest. ... The big theme is that kindness trumps everything."
The result is that Derek, the second season of which will be available Friday on Netflix, is completely heartwarming, with laugh-out-loud scenes coming in equal measure to moments that leave a lump in the throat. "I get things like, 'Oh, it's really sweet. It's really surprising. It's not cynical,'" Gervais says of the response to the first season (and the second, which has already aired in Britain). "Which is a compliment and a diss, because people are shocked that I have any sensitivity or understanding of the human condition. [But] I've always studied that. I just exploited the wrong side before. I showed the foibles and the terrible side of it. ... This starts out more sincere and ends more sincere ... but it's still very much what I do."
Filmed in the same documentary style as The Office, Derek chronicles the lives of Derek and his co-workers at the Broad Hill nursing home. Though the plots are straightforward on the surface (one episode revolves around a talent show at the facility), Gervais elevates them with subtle nuances — mostly in the form of unfiltered observations from the childlike Derek — that are often profound. "When you've got a character like Derek, who wears everything on his sleeve, it's just more explicit," Gervais says. "That's a very conscious decision, because I thinkDerek's sort of based on me and all of us, before the weight of the world started telling us what was cool to like and what we could say or what we couldn't say."
In Season 2, which picks up a year after the events of Season 1, Hannah (Kerry Godliman) and Tom (Brett Goldstein) take an important step in their relationship, an antagonistic new employee named Geoff (Colin Hoult) has joined the Broad Hill staff, and Derek's formerly estranged dad Anthony (Tony Rohr) moves into Broad Hill. Derek quickly discovers that his father's womanizing ways haven't changed much — which in turn prompts Derek to try online dating. "In a sweet, funny, interesting, real way, he's still not the father Derek imagined," Gervais says. "He thought that he's getting his dad back and he was going to be a sweet old man. But actually, he's still an old goat. He's still running around chasing women and drinking and smoking, which is stressful for Derek."
If you aren't caught up on Derek already, here are six reasons why you should start watching now:
1. It's perfect for binge-watching. Let's get the practical info out of the way. Derek's entire first season consists of only seven 23-minute episodes, and the second season is comprised of six episodes of the same length. That's basically the same as two standard movies!
2. It's Ricky Gervais like you've never seen him before. On paper, the description ofDerek sounds somewhat cringe-worthy: Ricky Gervais playing a dim-witted (possibly autistic?) nursing home employee. But whatever Derek's shortcomings may be, they're never played for humor — in fact, quite the opposite. "I never thought of him as disabled in any way. I thought of him as different," Gervais says. "Derek's just blissfully happy because he only does what he likes, and he says what he means. He's honest. ... He's got no prejudices. He's great." Gervais can still get a laugh with just the slightest look at the camera, David Brent-style, but Derek's sadder scenes are where he really shines. (Episode 5 of Season 2, which Gervais calls "my favorite episode possibly of anything I've ever done," is a real doozy in that regard.)
3. It's the best kind of "reality" show. In addition to the show's overall single-camera/talking-head aesthetic of the show (in a running joke, Derek repeatedly asks the film crew if they're from Secret Millionaire), the stories themselves are rooted in reality. "I'm still writing about what I know, because all my family were care workers growing up, so I've got 35, 40 years of anecdotes," Gervais says. "You can't compete with real life. You really can't. All you can do is hope eventually people treat it like real life, which is why I like realism so much. It's like the more you make it look real, people think these people are real. ... I think it's very important that people, for that half an hour, think this might be happening next door or to them."
4. It will be your new favorite workplace comedy. Gervais is still unparalleled when it comes to developing fully realized characters using only the smallest details. The crew at Broad Hill includes Kevin (David Earl), a crude alcoholic who basically lives at the nursing home; Vicky (Holli Dempsey), a boy-crazy young volunteer; and Dougie (Karl Pilkington), an overworked and underpaid staff member who eventually quits. Like the patients they care for, the workers find themselves on the fringes of society for various reasons. Fun fact: The character of Kevin is based on someone Gervais knew as a teenager, and who was best friends with the guy on whom The Office's Gareth was based. "The guy who I based Gareth on once bet the guy I based Kev on that he wouldn't eat some [vomit], and he did," Gervais says. "They were two 14-, 15-year-old absolute idiots." And in a familiar TV workplace scenario, Derek also features a romance to root for between Hannah and Tom, though it's not without realistic ups-and-downs. "I don't want it to be just a weird, idyllic, strange, never-happens-ever sort of romance," Gervais says. "I like complicated."
5. The episodes are "a workout for the soul." With Derek, Gervais masterfully toes the line between making the show sweet but not saccharine. He's delivering a message, to be sure, but he manages to do it in a way that never feels didactic or eyeroll-inducing — even when he rips off the reality TV trope of ending an episode with a Coldplay song. "These are 23-minute fables, really," Gervais says of the individual episodes. "Even though it looks very real and sort of gritty and down-to-earth, they're sort of like fairy-tales. ... They're a little workout for the soul, I think. (Laughs). [Derek's] got more in common with The Waltons than something like Curb Your Enthusiasm."
6. It's unlike any other show on any platform. There are times when Derek feels like a farcical sitcom, and times when it feels like a heavy-handed drama. By blurring the lines between the two genres, Gervais has created a series that any viewer will be able to relate to on some level. "Even when I did The Office, I knew that I'd rather it be a million people's favorite show than 10 million people's 10th-favorite show," Gervais says. "That's so much more important to me, that a few people connect with it like they haven't connected before."
All six episodes of Derek Season 2 will be available on Netflix on Friday. Catch up on previous episodes here.