The very best comedies walk a fine line - they need to. And in the darkness, sometimes, come small morsels of light that flare into brilliance. Derek, a new comedy from Ricky Gervais, is a program with enormous ambition and, in an era when the media (and commentariat) rarely hold their powder in order to look for nuance, great risk.
The star of Derek is hapless, innocent Derek, played by Gervais. He's a simple man. He has learning difficulties. Whether he's disabled or not is a moot point. Much of the discussion about the show says he is, Gervais says he is not, and the show does not explicitly say either way. But what we know is that he works at a home for the elderly and this series, a mockumentary of sorts, focuses on Derek and his life.
The show provoked criticism in Britain before it was even broadcast. But like most headline-hungry storm-in-a-teacup media scandals in which artists are pilloried for art, there is so much more here that is worthy of examination and discussion.
Derek is a heroic figure whose innocence, and the enormous power it gives him, serve as a mirror to the more complex, more ''able'' society. And on reflection, it's difficult to know who comes out on top.
Gervais clearly revels in cringe-inducing comedy - you need only to spend a moment in David Brent's company to understand that. And yet in Derek there is something more.
His friendship with Hannah (Kerry Godliman), another care worker, is beautiful, shaped by her own flaws and uncertainties. And his own humanity, particularly in the later episodes of the series, soars.
Derek doesn't always hit the mark, but few programs can. What is certain is that Gervais' intentions is to upend societal norms and ask challenging questions about why we label each other, and once labelled, whether we are any better off. He knows the answers, and tries to use the humbling gentility of Derek in the manner of a house brick.
Make no mistake - this is a courageous comedy. It isn't always easy to watch, nor is there malice in its step. And the preconceptions we have perhaps say more about us, than they do about this show.
Gervais is a brave man. Even if Derek doesn't always succeed comedically, its creator deserves kudos for his courage in trying.
Derek will air in Australia later in 2013.
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