Ricky Gervais writes what he knows. Before his breakout success with “The Office” more than a decade ago, Gervais spent his working life in the corporate and non-profit worlds and was able to draw directly from those experiences in creating the show.
Since the BBC’s original broadcast of “The Office,” the Ricky Gervais series has risen to international acclaim, as has Gervais himself. Producing partner Stephen Merchant and Office co-star Martin Freeman, who played “everyman” Tim Canterbury on the show and is now known worldwide as “The Hobbit,” haven’t fared too badly either.
From “The Office” to “Extras”
Gervais’ followup series with Merchant, who also plays a supporting role, was the quasi-autobiographical “Extras.” Ordinary schlub Andy Millman is struggling to make it as an actor with the ultimate dream of writing his own TV series. Unfortunately, his clueless agent, former Carphone Warehouse manager Darren Lamb (Merchant), has zero knowledge of the entertainment industry and only inhibits Andy from getting ahead. His best friend and fellow extra, Maggie Jacobs (played by Ashley Jensen), is also a bit of a drag on Andy’s rising star, though more out of her awkward lack of a conversational filter and low self-esteem.
The storyline of “Extras” allowed several A-listers to slide into cameos written just for them. David Bowie, Patrick Stewart, Ben Stiller, Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg all made appearances on the show. Also, Kate Winslet made a hilarious cameo, and famously went on to earn an Oscar for “The Reader,” in perhaps one of the funniest examples ever of life imitating art.
Gervais further increased his following with his radio show/podcast (and later HBO animated series), “The Ricky Gervais Show.” Essentially an unscripted half-hour conversation between friends (Gervais and Merchant), this is the Ricky Gervais series that introduced the world to Karl Pilkington. Pilkington had been producing for Gervais and Merchant since their earliest collaboration on radio, even before “The Office.” He served initially as the new radio show’s producer, but quickly became the focus of the unscripted banter due to his off-kilter world view and unfiltered observations.
Pilkington’s curmudgeonly lack of ambition also inspired Gervais and Merchant to create the show, “An Idiot Abroad.” Ostensibly a travel show in which host Pilkington visits each of the new seven wonders of the world. The series was, in reality, more of a way to spotlight Pilkington’s inimitable (and all too real) off-center personna.
“Derek” Begins Sept. 12 on Netflix
Gervais’s most recent series is “Derek,” which will begin streaming on Netflix, September 12th. This particular Ricky Gervais series was inspired by the several members of Gervais’ family who happen to work in care homes.
In the series, Gervais plays do-gooder Derek Noakes who works at Broad Hill retirement home. Derek is a man-child in the very literal sense. He isn’t particularly bright, nor is he attractive, and Derek is very much aware of this. His personal motto is “It’s more important to be kind than good-looking or clever.” He loves the people he cares for, especially Joan. He has a not-so-secret crush on his manager Hannah, and is generous to a fault. When asked what he would do if he won the lottery, he replies that he would give it all to Hannah, and that he doesn’t need money. He has everything he needs already.
Pilkington plays Dougie, the home’s custodian (aka caretaker to the BBC) and bus driver when the residents go on outings. He is also Derek’s best friend and shares his council flat with Derek. Despite Dougie’s surly exterior and annoyance for all that he deems “pointless,” he is actually quite tolerant and patient — not unlike Pilkington himself.
Controversy Surrounding Ricky Gervais Series
Due to the characterization of the eponymous Derek, the show was met with a certain amount of controversy after the pilot originally aired on the BBC. Some reviewers and commentators took Gervais’ performance to be a blatent ridicule of those with mental disabilities, while others could identify with the humanity of a marginalized underachiever.
Gervais has been performing the character of Derek Noakes on stage for years and explains that the character he created isn’t meant to have any identifiable diagnosis, that his portrayal isn’t intended to mock anyone. His goal with the character was to make such a common (but rarely seen on television, except as comic relief or high drama), perhaps less than ordinary person, the hero. This is a noble concept, and certainly worthy of producing.
However, the mockumentary ceased to be original years ago — though ironically, it was Gervais himself who helped to push the format to the top of the TV comedy subgenre list. There are also a few things I would have done differently, Pilkington’s wig for a start. Why is it there? Did Gervais think we wouldn’t recognize his “head-shaped-exactly-like-an-orange” sidekick? There are some slapstick moments as well that really don’t add anything to the characters or move the story forward, but that’s perhaps a difference in comedy taste between Gervais the writer and myself.
Gervais’ performance, on the other hand, is for the most part very committed. Though, his Andy Millman does seem to take over from time to time.
Pilkington is a bit of an odd choice, whatever his relationship with Gervais off camera.
Yes, his lack of training as an actor lends somewhat to his believablity in the role, but his participation also brings out a “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” sense of not really taking the thing seriously.
Overall, for anyone who has ever worked or spent time in the kind of environment depicted in “Derek,“ the characters and storylines are a pretty accurate representation of what goes on. Even Derek himself is recognizable and not necessarily as a resident. In sum, the newest Ricky Gervais series is heartwarming, heartbreaking and a bit of chicken soup for the soul.