Most of the nominations for the Primetime Emmy Awards released on Thursday were no surprise. The usual suspects of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black ranked among the nominees for outstanding show. The requisite actors in those shows were also, predictably, chosen for awards for their respective parts in the nominated shows. There was one major surprise Emmy Awards nod, however, for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy this year, given to a lesser-known Netflix show, Ricky Gervais’ Derek.
Netflix has been lauded by the Emmy Awards this year for producing some of the most outstanding television on its new format this year. Both House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have racked up multiple nominations for both show and actor, and it’s quite possible that Netflix, with its uncensored and “binge watching” format will sweep the Emmys with even greater vengeance than last year. Ricky Gervais is also no stranger to accolades, and has two award-winning shows already under his belt with The Office and Extras. Derek seems to hold a special place in Gervais’ heart, however, and he has said that he holds the single nod from the Emmy Awards for the performance he gave in Derek over all his other awards.
Derek is indeed a different type of show from any seen before, both in Ricky Gervais’ career and possible in the history of the serial sitcom. It manages to combine a number of different types of humor; slapstick, rude and raunchy, sarcasm and satire, with a heartwarming and achingly touching picture of the human condition. All these elements are combined in the setting of a public pensioner’s home in England called Broad Hill.
Gervais plays the title character in Derek, a care worker with some sort of developmental disability (autism is alluded to at one point in Season One, but it’s never made clear) who is largely oblivious to the failings, both comic and tragic, of the people he works with and the conditions which surround him. The home is under constant threat of losing funding, and the manager Hannah (Kerry Godliman) is constantly struggling to keep the place running. Derek considers Hannah his best friend along with handyman Dougie (Karl Pilkington) and a homeless, boozing derelict who hangs around the home named Kev (David Earl). If you ask Derek, all the people who live at Broad Hill are his best friends as well. “All my favoritest people are here…I’ve got so many best friends – I’m the luckiest man in the world,” says Derek, and viewers won’t only be inclined to believe he believes it, but that he really is.
The show, also written and directed by Gervais, navigates the difficult subjects like Alzheimer’s disease, mortality, homelessness and the problem of what to do with the elderly poor in a way that is in one moment funny, in the next touching, and in yet another gut wrenching. The main cast provides comic relief from the everyday difficulties facing Broad Hill, but the focus never shifts from the issues facing the home, and faces them unflinchingly, recording the sadness of the staff and heartbreak of the residents’ families right alongside the funny moments.
Ricky Gervais’ Emmy Award nod may be the only one given for season one of the show, but the huge difference between Derek and any other character in his category is a surprise. The adeptness with which Gervais plays the character is not. The very tricky, subtle movements and demeanor of Derek seem so natural to the character actor that the audience will find it easy to believe the character as they follow Derek through the story line, which is clearly very close to Gervais’ heart. Through all the slings and arrows, strange characters and situations, the show’s central theme is visited again and again through the character of Derek: kindness. Derek’s character, with his unwavering positivity and emotional honesty may see the world through rose-tinted lenses, but the show asks the audience to wonder why he shouldn’t. Derek is able to see the good in all of the people around him almost instantly, and when he does he shuts off to any of their flaws of fears, and focuses on how he can help and care for them. It seems a simplistic view of the world, but when the rest of the cast are asked about Derek, they all say they wish they were able to do the same. To quote the constantly belching and swearing Kev, “Derek took…the only shortcut that’s good, and the only shortcut that works. And that’s kindness.”
With all of Netflix’s breakout hits, it would be easy for the likes of Derek to get lost in the shuffle. The Emmy Award nod toward Ricky Gervais and Derek may not be as incredible as the 14 and 12 nominations House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black received respectively, but there may be another surprise hit in Derek and a win for Outstanding Actor may give the series even more momentum. Season two just completed, so with more exposure from the Emmy Award and increased viewership, Derek may find itself picking up even more awards in the 2014 season.
Commentary by Layla Klamt