Ricky Gervais’ new series Derek, finishing up a couple of weeks ago now, was met with mixed response from TV critics in the UK. While developing a sizeable fan base on Twitter, it seems Gervais has again struggled to reclaim the respect of critics which has been increasingly absent since Extras. From the perspective of critical acclaim alone, it has elongated a steady slump in quality from the world’s most successful comedian.
In recent years it has perhaps become a little bit trendy to be hyper-critical of any of his projects: An Idiot Abroad, Life’s Too Short, The Ricky Gervais Show and his assorted stand-up shows were all dismissed as offensive, tired, or both. Not that he would be too bothered: Gervais has always played down how big an influence critical response has been to his work, while at the same time having the pleasure of managing an over-stuffed cabinet of gongs for The Office and Extras.
But where Does Derek sit amongst all of this? Aside from uncomfortable murmurs questioning what kind of disability exactly Gervais is meant to be portraying in the titular hero, the series has mostly come under fire for its relentless charge towards sentimentality. There’s nothing really wrong with the show’s super-size helpings of schmaltz, but it has led to a kind of structural linearising of each episode. It seems for our heartstrings to be sufficiently tugged there has to be token dickhead dropped into the show to be conquered, a trauma that has to be overcome to the whiny tones of Chris Martin, and some sugary closing words of profundity delivered unwittingly by Gervais’ slow-witted hero.
But this overdose of pathos shouldn’t perhaps be the shock to the system that it is: Gervais’ work has always had a soft spot, as the final episodes of The Office and Extras will pay testament to, but the difference was those heart-warming moments used to be teased or drip-fed to us, we once had to seek them out among piles apathy and humiliation. Now it’s served up by the gallon in an incessant and slightly cheap heart-rending orgy or love and interior fuzziness. Where we were once made to wait years for Tim and Dawn to finally get together in one of the greatest moments in the history of British TV, Derek manages to reconcile with his estranged father of 50-odd years in the much tidier span of half an hour.
But does this make Gervais any less funny? Not as such, although the gag count has noticeably declined since Extras, but then this is most probably a conscious decision on the once chubby funster’s part. A reasonable response is to suggest it is a matter of age: We’ve probably seen enough awkward silences, social faux-pas and Laurel and Hardy-esque glances to the camera for a lifetime, and so perhaps it’s time less acerbic ventures were sought. Gervais is probably no longer interested in being regarded in the same light as other ‘controversial’ comedians such as Frankie Boyle and Russell Brand, so why not make that move into drama where the most controversial thing we can ask about his work is ‘what kind of mong is he meant to be portraying?’
As a writer of believable, relatable characters and relationships Gervais’ talent can never really be questioned. The only real problem he seems to have had is jumping too readily into safer political territory. It’s all very well and good letting up on the acid tongue and daring explorations of the social traumas of prejudice and disability, but it shouldn’t be totally obliterated by an ‘at-all-costs’ cannon-balling into a happy ending. To answer the question of whether he is still funny: yes, but his recent sugar-rush for sentiment may prove to compromise that fact.