“Have you watched Derek yet?” seems to be a question I’m hearing often of late. Not to be confused with the German detective show Derrick, Derek is a British comedy drama available on Netflix. The six-part “mockumentary” is written and directed by Ricky Gervais who also stars as the lead character Derek, a care worker in a home for the elderly.
An old folk’s home initially seems like an unlikely setting for a sitcom. In watching it you can almost smell the antiseptic, porridge, and mustiness in the air. First impressions aside, I found Derek to be a bittersweet comedy that is at times touching and heartbreaking. With great sensitivity, the show raises sobering issues of disability, loneliness, poverty, sickness, and death, all written and performed in a sensitive and poignant way. For a show written by a “mean” and “nasty” atheist, Derek has soul.
Derek has attracted a great deal of negative publicity. Some viewers complain online that the show is clichéd and overly sentimental, or cruel and mocking the disabled and the elderly, like Gervais’ caustic characters in The Office and Extras. Those who watch the show will find that Derek isn’t about mocking these people. It is about mocking the way that society treats these marginalized and forgotten people. Despite the bad, and some downright hostile, reviews the show has a loyal following and fortunately, there will be a second season of Derek.
The cast of characters includes the hardworking and cynical caretaker Dougie, sex-crazed loafer Kev, selfless care worker Hannah, and the awkward, innocent, and unfailingly kind Derek. This also seems to be an unlikely role for Gervais who plays a possibly Autistic, Christmas-sweater wearing, middle-aged man with permanently greasy hair and a slack jaw. However, this show leads us to look past exteriors and see people for who they are. Derek isn’t handsome, intelligent, or rich, but he’s a good person. The series demonstrates some simple yet powerful themes of honesty, forgiveness, and kindness. As Gervais has said himself, the “show is about kindness being more important than anything else.”
This alter ego is a huge departure for Gervais who is still viewed by many as the scathing atheist who argues with people on Twitter and the man who offended Hollywood as the 2010-2012 host of the Golden Globes. Derek as a character is compassionate, kind, and moral. Derek also suggests that Gervais, and by extension atheists, can be compassionate, kind, and moral people. Being good or bad has nothing to do with being religious or nonreligious.
In the final episode for this series, Derek provides some simple words that resonate with many of us.
“I don’t think it matters if there is a God or not. I’ve met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I’ve met people who don’t believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I’m good. Not because I think I’ll go to Heaven but because when I do something bad I feel bad and when I do something good I feel good.”
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitterhere.