Ricky Gervais's metamorphosis into Woody Allen continues with his latest offering, Derek. Exploring the emotional connections between human beings through comedy, rendering popular comedy as high art, Gervais's use of characters we've all known and loved in our own lives as vehicles to say something broader is truly unmatched.
Derek has to be one of the sweetest comedy subjects there has ever been and his naivety and inquisition are among his most endearing traits. Gervais is treading a fine line with a character like Derek - one slip and the press would be hounding him as a discriminatory bully, but he is so adept at using the subject of his writing as a tool to speak about people's perceptions of them that there is absolutely no danger of him doing so. As it is, it probably speaks more about him as a person than a writer that he can handle such fragile subject matter with such consummate care. It's obvious that the joke is coming from a good root rather than one likely to mock the afflicted gratuitously.
Like Allen, Gervais seems to know just where to place absurd characters and just how to make them hyper-real. Once again using a documentary as the pretext for all of the ludicrous scenarios to become utterly believable, Derek is a real return to form for him after the poor, worn-out tedium of Life's Too Short. Beyond the central character there are gems aplenty too. The tirelessly accomodating Hannah (played by Kerry Godliman) is a true carer - for her there should be no price on care for the elderly and no end of patience when dealing with them. Karl Pilkington pretty much plays himself (which is, as always, utterly hilarious) without a pair of clippers as Dougie and Kev (played by David Earl) is a dislikeable, disgusting layabout with some cracking one liners.
The character dynamics here are classic Ricky Gervais territory - Hannah's looks at the camera in disbelief echo Tim in The Office, while Kev, a la Finchy in The Office, is a reprehensible, coarse man who believes he is God's gift to the opposite sex. Dougie has an air of Gareth Keenan about him - the talking heads in which he goes off tangent while venting his frustrations are the particular points where we see this side of him.
We're only two episodes in at the time of writing, but already I'm in love with this show. Once again Gervais has pulled off a masterstroke of comedy-cum-drama that gets to the very essence of drudgerous life and existence in Britain. In social observation terms, he is an absolute genius. That this time he's managed to do it alone (without usual collaborator Stephen Merchant) is testament to his enormous talent as a comedy writer.
I'll calm down with all of this sycophantic gushing when Gervais stops making superb comedy. For a while there I thought he would and that, as the lazy cliche goes, he'd lost it. Life's Too Short was a boring amalgamation of The Office and Extras and my thought was that he'd run out of ideas ergo An Idiot Abroad and letting Karl Pilkington's monologues take centre stage in his projects. As it turns out, he'd just had a temporary dip in form only to come back and reinforce my thought: that he is the finest sitcom writer we've seen on these shores in the past 20 years.