John Walsh on Derek: Funny how Ricky Gervais's show lacks laughs, when Lena Dunham's Girls crackles with wit and invention
Gervais's latest addition to his comedy menagerie grates more than it amuses
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Sunday 03 February 2013
A storm of protest greeted the pilot for Ricky Gervais's new comedy creation Derek last April. After his references to "mongs" on Twitter, Gervais seemed to have hit a new low: Derek struck some as a mean-minded piss-take at the expense of the mentally ill.
Now we have a whole series on Wednesday nights on Channel 4 in which to inspect this new arrival in the Ricky Menagerie, successor to the stroppy midget in Life's Too Short.
Appropriately, for the master of "cringe comedy", Derek spends much of his time cringeing. He walks with a defeated shuffle. His greasy hair falls apologetically across his brow. Gervais plays him for maximum pathos. At first, watching that familiar gaze flicking sideways to the camera, I wasn't sure if some double-bluff or deception were afoot: would Derek's apparent autism or Asperger's turn out to be a pose? But it soon became apparent that he's meant to be a troubled innocent, bruised by life – like Smike in Nicholas Nickleby.
Derek is a helper at Broad Hill Nursing Home, but his main role is to insist that the patients and staff are a big happy family, despite the chronic anger issues of caretaker Dougie (Karl Pilkington) and the howling awfulness of Kev (David Earl), a beardy nonce who talks in a blizzard of sexual propositions and is discovered naked in bed with an elderly woman inmate as the local council comes round.
Luckily, there's also Hannah, the nurse in charge. Kerry Godliman's performance is the best thing in Derek: her chats to camera convey a moral strength that's saintly but wholly plausible. When the council threatens to shut the care home, she has to rally the awkward squad of elderly patients and dysfunctional staffers.
It's not, then, an obvious barrel of laughs, more an Ealing comedy of plucky outsiders versus the System. There are funny moments, as when a volunteer on community service is asked what his crime was. "I threw something in my neighbour's skip," he says. What exactly? "His wife – she were doing my fookin' head in." Or the way Derek's and Kev's attempt to collect protest signatures in Hampstead High Street is derailed by Kev's impulse to proposition every woman he approaches. "I'd stand a chance with you," he told an NW3 matron, "if I got you all pissed-up and teary."
Mostly, though, its dramatic arc relies on mawkish sentimentality. Hannah recited statistics for how many oldsters die soon after being rehoused. Asked if Derek was handicapped, she said: "Yeah, he's too nice for his own good." Oh please. Derek – both the character and the show – is like a hurt puppy you're supposed to root for and find endearing. And yet, instead, you feel like stamping on it.
By coincidence Girls (Sky Atlantic, Monday), which starts its second season on Sky Atlantic, also revolves around a Hannah, but there all comparison with Derek ends. Girls also deals with dysfunctional characters, but they're not autistic, or old – they're modern New Yorkers. Lena Dunham's show (she's creator, scriptwriter, director and star, all at 26) traces their everyday lives, which means almost exclusively their sex lives, with terrific wit and invention. The dialogue crackles, but not in the faux-glittery way of Will & Grace or Sex and the City. It's genuinely funny. Hannah and Elijah discuss having theme parties. She suggests several cuisine-based ones. "Not all your nights can be food nights," says Elijah, "I was thinking of maybe … French salon." "I'd love that," says Hannah, "because secretly I'm really good at cutting hair." "It's more of a Gertrude Stein thing," says Elijah tactfully. "Oh you mean a lesbian theme night?" cries Hannah.
All the characters sleep with several people, gay and straight, in a bid to find something that works for them – and their negotiations with each other, full of childish misunderstandings and attempts at emotional clarity, are hilarious. "What does that even mean?" is a recurring question, as are indignant post-mortems on their various bunk-ups. But there are gems of truth among the nonsense. Accused of not being very nice to her, Hannah's boyfriend Adam says: "Yeah but when you love someone, you don't have to be nice all the time."
The nakedness of their emotional need is underlined by the startling amount of fleshy bits on show, especially Dunham's. Girls is amazing. It knocks pretty much all modern British comedy into a hatted cock.
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
The battle for control of Stieg Larsson's £30m legacy
Arts & Ents blogs
Christmas TV guide 2013: Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all
American Hustle, review: 'Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as the neurotic housewife'
The Harry Hill Movie, film review: Screenplay isn't so much offbeat as utterly feeble
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Bonuses for goals and top four finish as Luiz Suarez joins Premier League's top three earners
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 #Teamnigella: It’s the only side to be on
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >