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'Derek' Recap: Ricky Gervais' New Series Is Heartfelt and Funny

Seven-episode Netflix show takes place in a retirement home

Ricky Gervais in 'Derek'.
Neale Haynes/Netflix
September 12, 2013 8:15 AM ET

You might not expect that a series produced, written, directed by and starring Ricky Gervais would find a way to bring a tear to your eye, but that's precisely what the comedian's new show Derek manages to do throughout its seven-episode run. Now streaming on Netflix, the series, which aired previously on Channel 4 in the U.K. (and has already been picked up for a second season), follows Derek Noakes (Gervais) – a kind, selfless care worker in Broad Hill retirement home – and his friends and co-workers as they tend the home's elderly residents, keep Broad Hill afloat and try their best to navigate through their own issues.

Gervais initially came under fire overseas when a trailer for the series premiered and left people wondering if he was using Derek's apparent mental disability to poke fun at the disabled. Gervais has said the character is not in any way disabled, and by the end of the first season, it's clear that Derek is the centerpiece around which the show revolves, and he becomes a shining beacon for kindness, charity, acceptance and selflessness.

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Derek is certainly not heavy on plot and what actually happens over the course of the seven episodes is almost inconsequential compared to the characters themselves and their natural development throughout the run. The pilot, for instance, introduces us to the fact that a documentary crew is filming the employees and residents of Broad Hill (similar to The Office) and also allows Derek to lead the viewer around the facility introducing his fellow co-workers, friends and the elderly residents who call the place home.

We meet Hannah, who runs Broad Hill, and has worked there for 15 years. Perfectly played by Kerry Godliman, Hannah cares more about the residents of Broad Hill than even some of their family members do, and is so fiercely protective of Derek that she actually head-butts a women who is making fun of him when the pair go out later in the episode.

Rounding out the main characters is Broad Hill's caretaker Dougie (Karl Pilkington), who acts like he doesn't care but turns out to have a heart of gold. Sadly, he's also saddled with the world's worst haircut. And, finally, Kev (David Earl), who doesn't actually work in the retirement home, but he's always there swigging a beer, slumping in a chair and being inappropriate.

The plotlines are simple: The pilot uses Derek in a roundabout way to find a potential love interest for Hannah and balances it out with the untimely (and emotional) death of a resident. The second episode includes a bid by the local council to shut down Broad Hill for lack of funding, and welcomes some friendly companions from the animal rescue center. The third episode involves a new cast member named Vicky (Holli Dempsey), who arrives after being sentenced to community service for stealing shoes, and also celebrates Derek's 50th birthday. Episode four includes a (possibly dead) baby bird and a jumble sale, while episode five features a field trip to the beach, some creative fundraising, Hannah soul-searching and the arrival of a new resident at Broad Hill. We get to see a unique cabaret show in Episode Six, along with a guest spot by Doc Brown playing another community service worker named Deon who initially hates his assignment before using his rap skills to show how his views have changed. The season finale, Episode Seven, is heartbreaking and uplifting in the best ways possible, focusing on the death of a beloved resident and a visit from Derek's estranged father.

Although Derek is at times a lighthearted romp, what sets the series apart are the family dynamics of the core characters and the emotional weight of their dedication to Broad Hill. Derek, Hannah, Dougie, Kev and even Vicky and Deon are so well painted throughout that you want to spend more time with them (well, maybe with the exception of perverted Kev). Even the elderly residents get just enough screen time and relevance to give them actual personalities, rather than being relegated to the background. When residents pass away, you feel it because you've actually been given a chance to care about them.

Derek is not perfect. It is, however, very good. There are moments that don't always work, and characters that can sometimes be grating. The show delivers some solid laughs, while developing an emotional core that fully earns the poignant moments in the season finale. Even characters that we initially loathed, and thought they were included for the sheer purpose of throwaway vulgar jokes (we’re looking at you, Kev) turn out to be dealing with their own personal issues in a profound way. Their inclusion also helps to speak volumes about Derek’s own accepting personality. He becomes, perhaps, the least non-judgmental character on television.

In fact, Derek is unlike just about everything else on TV right now. It's not a laugh-a-minute comedy like The Office, but it shines a much-needed light on the often-disregarded elderly community, and provides hope and happiness through its main character's caring personality. Derek is the feel-good show you didn't know you were looking for and, with it, Netflix has another winner.

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