DISCLAIMER: The following is an editorial and, as such, contains opinion, speculation, and a certain amount of guesswork as to the motivation of certain individuals. I do not speak for Pilkipedia as a whole; I am merely an entertainment consumer and, until recently, a longtime-fan of Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant, and Karl Pilkington. (I’m still a fan of two of them. The third one might win me back.)
When I see my friends raving on social media about this wonderful program on Netflix and how sweet and touching and beautiful it is, I feel a bit like I do when I hear children say that they like The Smurfs 3: Why Don’t You Go Smurf Yourself. I realize how arrogant that is of me to say, but that’s what I think. It’s not because I believe Gervais can do better – Life’s Too Short cured me of that. It’s not that I thought the show was terrible from the start – I actually enjoyed the pilot and had hopes for the series (though I confess that when I first heard about it, I stated publicly that I didn’t think the character merited a whole series). It’s that I feel people are falling for what they’re being sold. Kindness is magic, and Derek Noakes is the kindest character filmed since I Am Sam was released…well, as it turns out, he actually isn’t.
The purpose of this article is to let people who have been bombarded with recommendations to see Derek know that of the three programs currently being offered by the triumvirate of Gervais, Karl Pilkington, and Steve Merchant, Derek is the one least worthy of your time and dime. Merchant’s Hello Ladies and the Pilkington-driven The Moaning of Life are the superior works.
DEREK’S HYDRA OF SHITE
As a program, Derek leaves the television aficionado with the same feeling one gets when tricked by those “lateral-thinking” riddles Gervais finds contemptuous: the nagging feeling that your intelligence has been insulted. In order to condense this analysis and leave room for the more deserving Hello Ladies and The Moaning of Life, I’m just going to touch on three things: the Derek character itself, the concept of the show, and the production.
Derek Noakes was originally a short created back in 2001. A sketch character, in other words…but so was David Brent, as are many other much-loved characters. However, the problem here is that while the 2001 Derek was genuinely a touching and somewhat bittersweet portrait of a less-than-average intellect with the best of intentions making his way through life, a decade later Derek became charged with many of Gervais’ actual beliefs, causing him to occasionally break character and let us know in no uncertain terms exactly what he thinks about religion, God, atheism, and religion. (Which is a good thing, as we’d have probably missed that information, loathe as Gervais is to talk about those things in every single interview and on Twitter forty-six times a day.)
In the pilot, we are informed that Derek is “the kindest person I’ve ever met” by Hannah, the primary caregiver in the nursing home in which Derek…works? Sort of? He does care about the elderly residents, at least in the pilot. But he also gets annoyed with them if they bumble in front of the camera (as those wacky helpless elderly are wont to do). Basically, you’re meant to just go along with the notion that Derek is a very sweet person who loves everyone, because he’s below-average in intelligence.
Every time I watch Derek, I think of Extras and the fact that they gave Kate Winslet the line “you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.”
The Office and Extras were successful for many reasons, not the least of which was that Gervais and Merchant were writing about what they knew. Gervais even said as much in the special features of The Office: “My English teacher used to say ‘write about what you know’. And it’s so true.” I’m not sure what part of Derek is derived from firsthand experience, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the winding up of Karl Pilkington.
Even if I granted Derek its premise, the execution at times is similarly a deliberate slap in the face of anyone with a working knowledge of knowledge. The ham-fisted montages which occur with staggering frequency of old people laying stagnant, their best years seemingly spent, while a piano droozles somber semiquavers to let you know this is sensitive programming are so ridiculously obvious as to seem disingenuous. Speaking of montages, the absolute low point of the show comes during episode 2, in which we are treated to a literal, line-by-line re-enactment of Radiohead’s “Bones”. Derek, whose foul-mouthed buddy Kev has gotten him drunk, crawls to the toilet as Thom Yorke sings “crawling on all fours”, followed by an Old Person rubbing their arm to “you’ve got to feel it in your bones” and just when you think it can’t get worse, we see a woman asleep in her rocking chair, and as the line “I used to fly like Peter Pan” hits, a black-and-white image of a female high-diver pops onscreen.
If the axiom is true that everything someone does provides us an example of what to do or what not to do, that montage should be shown in universities worldwide with the preface “Thou shalt not…”.
The only saving grace of Derek is the performance of Karl Pilkington who, to Gervais’ credit, was given a role where he wouldn’t have to act at all – just be himself. However, he’s already stated he’s not coming back for Season 2, and there’s enough quality programming from Pilkington anyway, so let’s leave the world of Derek once and for all to the people willing to fall for it and get to The Good Stuff:
THE MOANING OF LIFE: A WELL-DESERVED ENCORE
Thanks to the three seasons of An Idiot Abroad (and Gervais and Merchant must be given appropriate credit for this), Karl Pilkington has become a seasoned world-traveler, while maintaining his…unique outlook on life as a whole. The conceit of this program is that as Karl was turning 40, it would be good for him to see how people all over the world handled Life’s Big Issues. And so he once again packs his bags and goes all around the world, pronouncing judgment on all he sees. Sometimes it’s childlike wonder, other times it’s glibly dismissive, but it’s always Karl Pilkington, and that makes it fun.
I’m deliberately avoiding getting into details here because I feel that all that needs to be said is that if you liked any of the An Idiot Abroad shows you’ll be treated to more of the same (just without Gervais and Merchant’s interventions), and if you didn’t see An Idiot Abroad, this is an acceptable place to begin. As a program, it’s not for the squeamish…but as Karl can be a bit squeamish, that’s sort of the point! You’ll find you have an ally in your reactions.
However, as good as it is, I personally find my favorite show to be the one by Steve Merchant. It’s not groundbreaking or different, but neither is meat loaf, and I find that to be hearty and satisfying.
HELLO LADIES: A TALL MAN SLIPPING UNDER THE RADAR
Produced by the team that created the American version of The Office, Hello Ladies is informed by Steve Merchant’s stand-up special of the same name. So, in that sense, Steve is avoiding the pitfall Ricky’s fallen into: even if the exact details of the show are fictitious, since Merchant’s playing a version of himself, he’s writing what he knows. (Or, more to the point, directing and acting what he knows.) Steve’s character, Stuart Pritchard, struggles with women because he’s conflicted in the way many single men who are “egomaniacs with an inferiority complex”: he thinks of himself as a loser deep-down yet feels he deserves the best woman he can find, based on the shallow concept that models represent The Top Of The Heap. Merchant does a wonderful job expressing his feelings and exorcising his demons in this character. The desperate need for acceptance and to impress women at all times leads him to make all sorts of social faux-pas (again, I won’t spoil it but you’ll be watching lots of this show through your fingers), while his selfishness comes out in the form of being miserly and insensitive to a struggling friend. The narrative of the show over its eight-episode run found each one getting better than the last as each character became more truly three-dimensional. In the end, I found myself anxiously awaiting Season Two, whereas with Derek, I found myself dreading Episode Three.
Anyway, that’s what I say.
- Chris Buchanan