Derek Vs The Office - A Comparison
This week, Ricky Gervais's new sitcom Derek moves into the second half of its series. Meanwhile, in the one or two spare hours I have each week whislt not watching and reviewing new TV, I finally checked out The Office, the sitcom that launched Gervais into his role as one of the most successful comedy writer/actors of our generation. (So, yes, I mean the UK Office, not the soon-to-conclude US version, although I've also seen a few episodes of that.)
And The Office is still acclaimed and highly regarded, whereas Derek has split viewers, with reactions ranging from enjoyment to outright offence and hatred. We reviewed the first episode and concluded that, yes, it has a certain watchable charm, but also gaping problems. What's the big difference here? How does The Office hold up? All this and more!
The Office, My Office, Your Office
Firstly, yes, The Office still works just fine. It's an odd show to watch now, as it's been so influential that it reminds you of a hundred series since, even though a lot of the "tricks" were done here first. Now that every other sitcom is filmed in shaky and/or mockumentary style, with no laugh track and humour that stems from horrific awkwardness, it's not as revelatory as it once was.
Still, even if this show isn't a blazing innovator anymore, it's still a great member of its club, and the standard the rest are judged by. Perhaps because it isn't just a great awkward comedy, but a great office comedy - work is subject of a million sitcoms, but few others have captured the awkward grey nothingness of the modern desk-based workplace and still made it funny, without giving in to the temptation to have someone get naked and ride a goat around the room, or whatever. Almost everyone who's worked in an office knows a Tim, Gareth or David Brent, and that's part of its universal appeal.
Also, it's grim as hell. For a so-called I spent a lot of time starting at it in reflected despair. It has jokes, thankfully the Brent character is OTT enough for some laughs, otherwise I'd probably slit my own wrists. Being in that environment brings out the worst in everyone - Tim is the closest to a likable everyman, but even he is often cruel or stupid. And, as I observed in my now-distant review of the Derek pilot, that's one thing they have in common: the fog of sadness that hangs over it. The sense that this isn't a nice place to be.
Reviewing By Template
So, instead of "reviewing" a show you all saw ten years ago, let's bring in Derek on that note. You could probably make a few easy comparisons - Ricky Gervais plays the OTT character (Derek/David), accompanied by a creepy sidekick (Kev/Gareth), whilst the two vaguely normal folk try to get on with things (Hannah & Dougie/Dawn & Tim). Obviously, this isn't a perfect comparison - I don't see a Hannah/Dougie romance happening - but there's a similar shape here. Not to mention the mockumentary stylings and grim atmosphere - no, these two aren't completely different.
But more fundamentally, Derek feels like a simpler piece of work. At times sweet or charming, if you're willing to run with it, but I'm not sure this is a classic millions will reflect upon. For every good element Gervais uses here (the sadness of old people being abandoned, the angry melancholy of Dougie, Hannah's struggling sacrifices), there's something to roll your eyes at. Like the repeated use of piano montages for emotional manipulation, Kev being written as a disgusting sociopath, the simplistic good guy/bad guy split - instead of The Office, which used a lot of real ambiguity. You'd sit there after an episode, unsure whether you feel any empathy for Brent or not, or whether Tim is a poor guy or an obnoxious, lazy idiot, and the answer was often both.
There's also Derek himself. I'm not sure if he needs to go, but his role is really odd. Partly because Gervais either likes him too much or is too conscious of offending people to put him through the heavy drama. Honestly, if his name wasn't in the title and his actor the biggest name, I'd think he was a background character. Hannah and Dougie are the most interesting and three-dimensional people, the bits that work generally centre around them.
Maybe you could say something similar about Tim and Dawn in The Office, but whereas Brent was a big enough character to take the brunt of the show and leave Tim and Dawn to quietly get along, Derek really isn't. And the ongoing attempts to make the plots keep centring around him, even though his role doesn't really warrant it, are awkward. Derek himself and the piano montages are the most glaring examples of the show bending over that bit too far to make sure we like him, and by extension it. And even when it works on me (which, admittedly, is much of the time), I'm not comfortable being manipulated. The Office made it easy to like Tim and Dawn, but still gave them both enough rough edges for us to feel like we were making up our own minds.
Ricky Gervais - Softening Further With Age?
Of course, remembering the end of The Office, maybe we shouldn't be surprised Gervais can be a big softy. No matter how irredeemable Brent seemed in previous episodes, he was still allowed to be a romantic hero and bite back at Finchy. Maybe as he gets older and further away from his angry office-working roots, Gervais is simply less bitter, more willing to do a whole series as an ode to care home workers. Considering many claim Gervais is the face of "nasty comedy", it's weird how much he's shying from it here.
Whether such whimsy leads to his objectively best work is another question. The Office was a great show that has aged beautifully; Derek is probably doomed to be an interesting curio. Not that I won't keep watching it, because I'm still interested in seeing how the plots turn out, especially Dougie and Hannah, turn out and, yes, it may be simplistic and emotionally manipulative, but unfortunately it's a form of manipulation that seems to work on me. If I could condition my brain to only feel during worthy US cable dramas, believe me, I would. But as long as I'm still engaged enough by Derek to keep watching it, they probably don't mind. And fair play to them.