Gervais's Derek might not be disabled - but he's not funny either
Controversy or no controversy, new Ricky Gervais comedy leaves critics cold
RICKY GERVAIS has spent the week fending off accusations that his new comedy Derek mocks people with learning disabilities. But after the pilot episode aired last night he has a new charge to contend with: that his latest show is just not very funny.
Two million people tuned in to Channel 4 at 10pm to watch Derek, a comedy about a simple-minded character who works in a nursing home. Gervais is renowned for pushing the boundaries with his humour, causing controversy in the past for using the word "mong" and creating the comedy Life's Too Short about an egotistical showbiz dwarf. But he has denied that Derek has a disability and insists he is "kind, loving, funny, sweet, honest, open minded, hard working and most of all resilient to everything a harsh selfish brutal world can throw at him".
This kindness, at least, left a couple of critics impressed. The Metro's Keith Watson says the show was a "surprising treat", describing it as a "sharp yet sweetly observed study of misfits". Chris Harvey notes in The Daily Telegraph that it "appears on the surface as if Gervais has picked on one of society's most vulnerable individuals" but Derek is "at its heart, nothing if not kind".
But compassion isn't enough for everyone. Sam Wollaston, in The Guardian, admits he really wanted Derek to impress "to shut up the Gervais bashers", but he says it wasn't controversial and nor was it very good.
Wollaston says the mockumentary style felt tired and he was neither moved nor amused by the character: "The humour (if you can call it that) yo-yos between standard been-there Gervais Office squirmy awkwardness and sit-in-a-custard-pie/fall-in-the-pond slapstick."
It should be possible for comedy to deal with this subject matter, says Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent. After all, in real life "disabled people aren't surrounded by a fiercely policed 'Laughter Forbidden' zone". But while Sutcliffe says "you might want to give Gervais credit for trying… I don't think you'd conclude that he'd succeeded."
Ben Machell at The Times agrees there really wasn't much to laugh at and when the gags did come they were "straight lazy". "Derek runs around naked after falling into a pond; the elderly are only funny because they are senile or deaf; when Derek asks Douglas, ‘What would win out of a suicide bomber and a shark?' it sounds like some old off-cut from The Office.
"Was Gervais exploiting a mentally disabled character for laughs?" asks Machell. "On this showing, not nearly enough he wasn't."