In a recent car commercial, Ricky Gervais, playing himself, listens to a little girl reading ugly comments posted about him online (“That fang-faced wimp Gervais should keep his big mouth to himself and stay unfunny in his own stupid country”) and then cackles triumphantly, concluding: “I’m doing something right.” It’s a joke, but it’s also probably meant as Gervais’ reply to those who see him as a sniggering meanie who insults people at awards shows. He’s a funny man who’s just doing his job; denounce him to your heart’s content, but he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Doth he protest too much? He’s back with a second season of Derek, the maudlin folly in which he plays an infinitely good-hearted, childlike dope who works at a retirement home. Gervais has responded to complaints that he’s caricaturing people with developmental disabilities by insisting that Derek isn’t meant to have any “specific and defined disability.” But he’s definitely not the captain of the debate team; at one point in the new season, a restaurant hostess overtaxes his modest allotment of brain cells by asking him for his last name.
Derek is both a blank slate and goodness personified, existing in a state of grace that cannot be reached by those who don’t need help deciding which shoe belongs on which foot. When a crass materialist type says that the acquisition of wealth enables people to just do whatever they want all day, Derek replies, “That’s what I do now.” Not that he doesn’t have a few dreams of his own. Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the minor saint who runs the home, has a list of some of his wishes for a better world, which she reads aloud to the camera, like a proud mother boasting on Facebook of a breakthrough in Junior’s potty training. Derek longs for “a pill what makes horrible people nicer” and “a pill what makes spiders keep away, but not hurt them.” The capper: He wishes that Hannah would find happiness. She deserves it, because “if everyone was like Hannah, there wouldn’t ever be anything wrong.”
Derek’s concern for other people is a quality not shared by Derek—which is almost exclusively concerned with getting the audience to admire Derek’s sweet nobility, and with jerking a few tears on his behalf. The first season included a few moments in which Gervais, as writer and director, pretended to be interested in what might be going on in the heads of the nursing home residents. Those were the good old days; now, the old people scattered around the set are clearly defined as props for him to react to, like the animals he frolics with during a trip to the zoo, or the sick dog he has a good cry over. He also tears up while watching a video of an old friend who died—and just in case anyone watching is even dumber than Derek, the show makes it clear how the audience is meant to respond by cutting to a close-up of Hannah tearing up while she watches him.
Karl Pilkington, who played Derek’s colleague and landlord in the first season, appears here in the first episode, then shuffles off, bitching about how he just can’t take it anymore. (Did he even know the camera was running?) That makes room for more of David Earl as the randy vulgarian Kev, who offers to help Derek put some photos on a computer—modestly explaining, “When half your life has been devoted to Internet porn, you pick up a few things.” Damned if the show doesn’t redeem him, too, slowly pulling back the grime to reveal the loving, caring individual within.
Colin Hoult plays a new worker at the home—a mean bastard who claims not to get Derek’s charms, rips off the inmates, and talks about how people don’t reunite with their dead pets in heaven, because animals don’t have souls. (A self-appointed expert on the afterlife, he also has a speech about how, when women who’ve had abortions die, they find their angry unborn children waiting for them on the other side.) The show sets up expectations that he’ll do something really vile, or at least be punished and fired for his transgressions, but in the closing moments of the final episode, he breaks down and reveals that he, too, just wants to be a nice person, like Derek. Any other resolution of his character would be too much like real drama.
Whatever tension was generated during the first season of Derek came from the audience’s natural curiosity over whether Gervais was on the level, trolling for awards in a spirit of absolute cynicism, or committing a gigantic put-on. He’s gone far enough by now that it’s safe to assume he must mean it—though it speaks well for the mental health of his subconscious mind that he has trouble convincing his body to believe what his mouth is peddling. Derek is meant to be at peace with himself and the world, but Gervais plays him by tucking his chin into his chest, folding his arms up, and moving about with a fast, jerky walk. It’s the body language of someone who’s already flinching in anticipation of the next blow from the universe, and it speaks volumes about what Gervais must really think it would be like to have to make do without his own formidable mental and verbal gifts. An episode of The Office or Extras would be wasted on Derek; he’s completely happy when he’s watching an online video of little piggies and bunnies doing cute things. Derek has all the creative ambition of one of those videos, and Gervais has cast himself as the cutest bunny.