Tag Archives: An Idiot Abroad

TV review: Derek with Ricky Gervais

Derek series posterRicky Gervais’ new series, Derek, just finished its first season in the UK.  It will be airing exclusively on Netflix in the US later this year (no premier date yet).  It’s only six episodes, but a second season in the UK has already been announced.

There was a lot of controversy before the show started, when it got out that Ricky was playing a man who seemed to be mentally disabled.  I think most of the controversy dried up when people actually saw the show. I don’t think it’s offensive at all–it might even be a bit too safe.

The show features Ricky as the eponymous Derek, possibly the nicest man in the world.  If there is one thing this show is about, it’s about valuing kindness over all other traits.  Derek cares about everyone and every living creature, and the show illustrates how much more valuable that is than qualities like intelligence, material success, A level scores, etc.  Derek works in a nursing home; it’s his whole life.  I can’t tell you what he does exactly (in terms of a job). It seems like he is more of a companion to the residents, and he’s very good at that.  He genuinely cares about all of them.

His best friend is Hannah,

hannahwho runs the nursing home.  She is one of those women who takes care of everyone and doesn’t have much of a life on her own. She puts all of her energy into her job and truly wants to take care of all of the people who live in and work at the home.  She makes me, honestly and truly, feel like a pretty terrible person by comparison.

To make me feel better, there is Karl Pilkington (and a hilarious wig) as Dougie.

slide_277704_2042719_freeDougie is the handyman in the nursing home.  He’s not as kind as Hannah or Derek–he is more willing to say what is on his mind and more likely to be irritated by other people.  Who knew Karl could act? He’s actually really good!  Now, there are a lot of similarities between him and his character.  In my preview of this series, I noted these similarities:

He complains a lot, likes to fix things, doesn’t know why he’s friends with Ricky.  Check, check, check.

And I stand by that post.  He’s very similar to what I know of him through An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show–though all of these shows give us Karl through Ricky’s eyes (and editing skills), so I wouldn’t presume to actually know him.  At any rate, Dougie is perpetually annoyed, but his annoyance is geared toward people who truly deserve it.  One high point of the series is when Dougie throws out the money-grubbing daughter of a woman who has just died, because she is a heinous person only concerned with getting her mother’s things now that she’s gone.  Dougie is my hero in that episode.

There’s also Kev

derek_kev_2Derek’s friend and the least likeable of the main characters.  He is sex-obsessed, crass, and generally unliked, but his friendship with Derek and the clear evidence that he is full of shit make the audience realize that he isn’t all bad.  If he was an asshole in the exact same way and also handsome/successful, then he would be unforgivable.  The fact that he is horribly unsuccessful in life and with women make his boasts and pronouncements less offensive and more sad.

In the background there are a litany of secondary characters from the fringes of life.  There are chavvy teenagers, assigned to do community service at the nursing home, the heinous people from the city council threatening to shut the place down, and of course the residents themselves.  I kind of love Derek for the simple fact that it shows people we don’t normally see on TV.  For how many hours of super fancy people on Selling New York or The Bachelor or Real Housewives of Whichever City, you’re only likely to see a regular person on shows like Hoarders or My Strange Addiction.  It’s lovely to see people represented on TV that normally wouldn’t be, and I hope it gives everyone a greater respect for older people, even though the show is inherently more rose-colored than reality must be.

Let me start with a warning about this show.  I cried during every single episode.  It is emotional; it is schmaltzy.  Some critics think the emotion has gone too far, into the realm of absolute sentimental tripe.  I think there are arguments for that.  After all, you never seem too controversial by showing how great it would be if everyone was kind to one another.  On the other hand, very few of us have the capacity to be as kind and as selfless as Hannah and Derek.  There are, undoubtedly, people who work in a caretaker capacity that are just like them.  But there are also people who take advantage of their situation to do horrible things, and there are people who become burnt out by what they are seeing on a day-to-day basis and become apathetic or cold-hearted as a result.  Derek portrays a world free from those types.  There are your occasional villains who come in (like the couple mentioned above, visiting only to get a hold of a family ring), but they leave.  Everyone there is forgivable and forgiving, and cares about the residents in their care.  I don’t know how accurate that is.

The show is genuinely funny, but you’re more likely to spend your time crying than laughing.

The show is very clearly a Ricky Gervais project, but at the same time it is quite different.  No matter how crass and unlikeable Ricky can be when he is confronting the world as himself (I have a coworker that loathes him completely), his works always have a good heart and good people behind them.  In The Office, Tim and Dawn are the heart of the show, but by the end of the run you do truly care for David Brent and for Gareth.  The only real villain of the piece is Chris Finch, and we see him put firmly in his place during the special (my favorite moment ever).  In Extras and Life’s Too Short, you see an egotistical, foolish, deeply flawed, very negative main character, but the show always makes clear that these traits are not rewarding.  In the end, these characters focus their energy on their personal relationships and not on the success they so long for.  That same sense of good and kindness is the main centerpiece of Derek, but Derek approaches it in a different way.  It’s there from the absolute beginning, as the prevailing quality of the main character.

It is schmaltzy, and it is sensationalist (to use the old definition of causing sensations), but it is cathartic to see and experience what life might be like if we were all a little less smart and a little more kind. It made me cry to the point of extreme discomfort on more than one occasion (especially the finale), but it did feel good afterward.  I really enjoyed the show and will definitely be watching the second season.

Ricky as Derek with dogs

An Idiot Abroad 3: The Short Way Round

An Idiot Abroad - Short Way RoundRicky Gervais has a pretty well sustained habit of only doing 2 seasons of his TV series. Two series and a special is his m.o., if precedent can be trusted. While this was technically billed as the third season of An Idiot Abroad, it is really more of a prolonged special.

Instead of sending Karl out on his own, Ricky and Steve have given him ‘a little pal’ in Warwick Davis.  I’m not sure if this idea came from Ricky working with Warwick on Life’s Too Short, or it emerged from the China episode of An Idiot Abroad–the very first episode, actually–when Karl visited a ‘dwarf village’ made up of little people who lived in very small homes and put on shows a few times per day for tourist tips.  Karl thought this was wonderful and really enjoyed it.  He said to the camera that ‘Ricky knows a little fella’ and he wondered what he would think of the village.  At this point, I remember asking my boyfriend if he thought Karl was talking about Warwick Davis.  He was, in fact.  Karl called Warwick and asked his opinion on the dwarf village.  Warwick did not think it was wonderful, something Karl couldn’t quite comprehend.  It’s one of the more interesting scenes in the original An Idiot Abroad series, and I sort of think that’s where this idea to put the two together came from.

If you’re wondering about the name (The Short Way Round), it’s an homage to a series of documentary (I use this term for want of a better one) films that Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman made.  The first was called The Long Way Down, where the boys rode their motorcycles from London to New York, by going East. The second was The Long Way Down, where they rode their bikes from the Northernmost tip of Scotland to the Southernmost point of Africa.  I’m not sure if The Short Way Round refers to the short nature of this special, the shortness of their trip, or is a nod to the shortness of Warwick.

In the first episode, Karl and Warwick go to Venice.  They are recreating Marco Polo’s trip to China, so they begin in Italy. It becomes apparent immediately that Karl and Warwick do not agree on anything. Their life views are completely different.  And the rest of this ‘series’ will remind you exactly how awful it is to travel with someone with whom you are not getting on.  The boys dress up that night for a costume party in the old Venetian tradition.  Karl really does not like this, and I can’t say I blame him.  One of the old-fashioned games is to be blindfolded and tickled with various things, etc., to experience different sensations.  As Karl explains, he could do without having an unknown someone’s halitosis blowing onto his face.  He complains, and then ditches Warwick on his own.

Karl and Warwick in costumeThe next day, Karl has picked something he wants to do–a jet pack.  The most hilarious part of this episode (and also the saddest), is that Karl is made entirely miserable by this activity that he has brought upon himself.  Oh, Karl.  The end of the episode has the boys move on to Macedonia, where they stay with a family of Romani (gypsies).  Warwick is made a bit uncomfortable–Romani consider little people to be good luck, so they make excuses to rub his head and touch him.  I would take a pass on that as well.  Later, the boys attend a religious ceremony where men stick metal rods through various body parts and then do some whirling dervish style dances.  Then Karl tries to be lifted by a bunch of helium balloons, but proves too heavy. He coerces Warwick into going up, and he sails very high in the air and feels a bit ill. But it’s good to see that the show will not just be making Karl uncomfortable.  It would feel too much like bullying if Warwick enjoyed the whole trip and Karl none of it.

Episode 2 takes the boys on to India, where each participates in activities they dislike.  Karl enjoys laughter yoga, and dislikes acting in a Bollywood film–partially because Warwick is acting a bit bossy now that he’s more or less in his own milieu.  They take a river cruise on the Ganges and then camp on its banks. They plan to stay for the night but some drunken locals annoy Karl so much he leaves for a hotel. The highlight for Karl is a trip to a nearby circus Karl and Warwick as clowns

 

 

and to visit the Spider Girls, a pair of conjoined twins featured there. The circus and its emphasis on showcasing the disfigured, disabled, and anatomically different, make Warwick very uncomfortable.  Karl is in his element here.  Everyone is a bit worried about Karl, but I think he’s very nice to them.  He asks them questions that would occur to everyone, about how they accomplish daily tasks.  He’s never disrespectful; only fascinated.  And if no one was fascinated by them, they’d have a much harder time making a living.  On the other hand, I can see why it would make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially Warwick.

The third and last episode gets the boys all the way to China. They take a trip on the Yangtze river, where Warwick gets a private cabin and Karl is put in steerage with 5 other blokes and a non-functioning toilet.  This seems very cruel to me.  Unless Warwick is paying his own way, I can’t help but think this is just Ricky being a terrible person. Part of the humor of An Idiot Abroad has always been seeing Karl complain and rant about doing things that a lot of us would love to do–climb Machu Picchu, see the Pyramids, go whale watching, etc.–but this is him complaining about a legitimate slight. I didn’t enjoy that. Once they’re off the boat, they visit the Chengdu Giant Panda research facility to interact with Pandas–thereby making me incredibly and irrevocably jealous.

Karl and Warwick as Pandas

On their climb up Mount Emei, Davis is beginning to be exhausted and wants to rely on a chair that you can hire to carry you up the mountain.  Karl has a bit of a pep talk with him and it is one of the nicer scenes to show how traveling with someone can give you a more full experience than if left to your own devices. Then, Karl decides he has worked hard enough, and pays to have the men carry him up the mountain.  It doesn’t occur to him that this is strange, because he doesn’t think he has anything to prove by getting up the mountain. Warwick does make it up all the way, and is grateful to have gotten to the top. As a grand finale to the series, the boys are supposed to do a bungee jump or base jump or some other X-sport off the top of the Macau Tower.  Warwick does it, Karl chickens out.  In typical Karl fashion.

The thing about these shows is that Karl is the last person to enjoy traveling.  I think traveling is incredibly important to understand the vastness of the world and your insignificance in it, but some people do not enjoy it. Karl thrives on routine and convenience. In every situation, his only experience seems to be anxiety and irritation.  It really straddles a line between hilarious and sad.  With Warwick in the mix, that is still there, but I think the dynamic is a bit muddled.  There are points where it does seem like everyone is ganging up on Karl, forcing him to exist permanently outside his comfort zone, and trying to deny him the only parts of the trip that seem fun and exciting to him.  But at other times, when Warwick is made to try something new and scary, it feels less like schadenfreude…or maybe it’s schadenfreude that is more equally distributed.

I can’t say I enjoyed these 3 special episodes more than the original series, but they were still funny and interesting and made me think a lot.  Whenever I watch Karl, I think about his way of living.  He doesn’t think the way other people do, I suspect because he hasn’t had a lot of education.  At a certain point in school, everyone starts to think in the same way. Call it scientific method, or brainwashing, or logic, or whatever, but all of the educated persons on earth will use the same process to evaluate the world–even if they get vastly different ideas from that process, it is the same process.  Karl has a more intuitive grasp on the world, which means occasionally he says the dumbest things you’ve ever heard.  It also means occasionally he says something that will make you stop and re-evaluate the universe.  He honestly sounds like Confucius sometimes, blurting out things that might be riddles, or nonsense, or great truth.  I love listening to him talk because he doesn’t say what anyone else would say.  I will probably watch anything with him in, just to hear the things he says.

Ricky Gervais news

Yesterday, Ricky came out with some news that I’m honestly not thrilled about.  He’s said, on his blog, that he doesn’t plan to continue with the Ricky Gervais Show, Life’s Too Short or with An Idiot Abroad after this year.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, as this past year was the first time he ever did any project that lasted beyond two seasons and a Christmas special.  As for the Ricky Gervais Show, which takes bits from his popular podcast with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, he claims he has gone through the best stuff from the original podcasts for the show, so it’s really about running out of material.

But I think it’s mostly about a fear of commitment.  He wants to have these perfect little runs with everything he does, so he backs out just as they’re sort of hitting their stride.  Going out on a high note I guess.  And I think some US shows could maybe take a page from his book (Veronica Mars, I’m looking at you), but it also is a bit annoying to constantly get attached to a project he’s doing and then it’s over two minutes later.

Ricky said he will do two specials to end An Idiot Abroad.  I’m not 100% clear on whether these specials are the same as the ‘Short Way Round’ project he is working on, where Karl and Warwick Davis travel about on a scooter. I suspect they are one in the same, because how long can you film those two on a scooter? First of all, it’s a scooter, so they’re not going to be traveling the world at a very high rate of speed.  It’s meant to be a spoof on the popular British shows Long way Round and Long Way Down, which featured Ewan MacGregor and his friend Charley Boorman on motorcycles doing epic trips around the globe.  But they could go a proper 80 miles per hour on good roads.  How’s a Vespa going to fair in the Sahara?  We’ll have to wait and see. Even if they’re epic trek is from London to the Cotswolds, I’ll be tuning in.

As for Life’s Too Short, they have confirmed a second season and Ricky said he has written a finale, so it will follow the two seasons and a Christmas Easter special pattern. To be expected, really.

Ricky did mention a lot of new projects he’s working on.  The main one is a show called Derek, which he shot a pilot for Channel 4 in the UK earlier this year, and he will be producing a few more episodes later in the year.  He has said he wants a US airing, and I’m sure it’s in negotiations.  My guess would be with HBO, as aired his comedy specials, Ricky Gervais Show, and Life’s Too Short. Plus, you can swear.

My only concern with this show is that it doesn’t seem as accessible to an American audience as the others he’s made.

The show features Ricky as Derek, a potentially intellectually sub-normal retirement home worker, and also has Karl in his acting debut as the janitor/handyman type at the retirement home.

There was a lot of controversy when it first came out because people have accused Ricky of playing up a mental disability for laughs, but Ricky says that Derek is not disabled, only a bit slow.  I think a lot of the criticism has died down since the pilot aired.

My concerns with an American audience are that:

a-it seems very entrenched in an aspect of British society that doesn’t usually make it to this side of the pond.  The lives of the uneducated, the decidedly not-posh, the poor.  The type of people you see in the supermarket or something and you know they are either not trying to live an active life, or they are unaware of the impression they’re putting out. Usually, the shows that make it to the US feature at least educated professionals, if not the out and out wealthy.

b-We are a lot more sensitive to p.c.-ness on this side of the pond.  I remember being absolutely shocked at the blatant sexual harassment in the Office, and I know that’s not something that would fly on an American show.  Ricky himself has said that for the US Office all the characters had to be much more likeable than they were in the original show.  So I think the controversy over Derek in the UK will be more of a big deal here.

Even if he is not purposefully portraying a disabled man, he is obviously portraying a man of sub-par intelligence, and he is walking a very thin line between making that character loveable and heartwarming, and playing up his stupidity for a laugh.  Ricky likes to toe that line in all of his work.  But I think there’s a big difference with this. In Life’s Too Short, you would find yourself laughing at Warwick Davis’ character.  You wouldn’t be laughing at him for being a little person, but for being a smart person doing incredibly stupid things.  In Derek, you have someone of normal intelligence playing someone of below average intelligence, and you are meant to laugh at him for being a bumbling moron. There’s a big difference in that, for me. You’re meant to care about him, and like him, but also laugh at him.  I think that we Americans find that much harder than the Brits.  Maybe that’s just me?

But I have watched the pilot, which is up on YouTube.  I’m not sure the legality of that, but I’ll risk incarceration to give you my opinion.

I really love the Hannah character, who is sort of a female Tim (Martin Freeman from the Office UK)–the everyman of the show that we can relate to and we genuinely root for.

Karl Pilkington’s ‘character’ seems to me to be just him being himself, with a bit of fake hair and some glasses.  He complains a lot, likes to fix things, doesn’t know why he’s friends with Ricky.  Check, check, check.

I did find it very difficult to laugh at Derek, because he is obviously a bit odd and not very clever.  What shocked me the most, I think, is that I cried. I cried more than I laughed, which is certainly a departure from a lot of stuff like An Idiot Abroad.

I think the bottom line is that I trust Ricky as an auteur, as a story-teller.  I don’t think that Derek will be a huge hit here, but I do hope it airs on HBO or similar. I will definitely watch it, but I’m sad that all of his other projects are ending, all in the next year. And I’m going to miss Stephen Merchant being on my TV!

Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries

This miniseries aired last weekend, on Saturday and Sunday nights on ABC. For some reason, ABC chose to air three of the four episodes on Saturday night, and only one on Sunday night.  I am not sure if that was a great idea, as each episode was structured to start before the ship sailed and end as the ship went down. So watching three in a row was like taking 3 steps forward and then 2 back, again and again.

So, my thought on this miniseries, are sadly more in line with Gosford Park than with Downton Abbey. From the depths of my heart, there is a resounding sentiment of ‘meh’.

For one thing, it took way too long to comprehend who people were, and by the end I still had a hard time remembering who was who.  In typical Fellowes’ fashion, we are confronted with 20 or so characters with a quick and perfunctory introduction to each. It works in Downton Abbey because a-he went a bit slower introducing everyone and b-there is more time to learn about people. But for a big ensemble cast, 4 hours just wasn’t enough time to go slowly or to let characters evolve and develop.  We, as the audience, didn’t have enough time to bother to care about most of the people.

The other problem I had, and this is a problem I really have with a lot of Fellowes’ work, is the women.  The men are smarter, more compassionate, and more capable than the women.  All of the women are sheltered, moronic, incredibly catty and prejudiced, and not very fun to watch.  I don’t understand why Fellowes does this, or what particularly makes him do this.  The women in Downton Abbey aren’t like this–even O’Brien, who is the true bitch of the piece, has had a redemption of sorts and is, from that point on, very empathetic.  But his novel that I read had a really skewed set of women as its stars.  So I’m really not sure what to say, except Downton Abbey is his one-trick pony, at this point.  All of the rest of his stuff seems to just be a disappointment to me.

I will say that there were a few parts that I enjoyed: Gli Italiani (Paulo and Mario) and Annie the cabin steward were cute and sad.  Also, I got to use my deteriorating Italian language skills, which is always a plus.  I also liked the Wideners, or their son at least.  But the real key moment for me was when John Jacob Astor (IV) freed the dogs from the bottom of the ship.  That made me love the man so much! I would have a-never taken a trip where my dog had to be in steerage in a cage for days on end, and b-punched anyone in the face if they tried to keep me from saving him. If I’d ended up in the water, I would have been holding my dog above my head to keep him dry.  But those are just my priorities.  So, needless to say, JJA is my new hero.

Since that was a short and unsatisfactory review of an unsatisfactory miniseries, I am going to share some great news I discovered today.  Apparently this was announced months ago and I am just very slow to hear about it.  But, I’m thrilled regardless.  Ricky Gervais’ next project, instead of a third series of An Idiot Abroad, is something called The Short Way Round.  This is, essentially, a spoof of The Long Way Round, which was an awesome documentary that followed Ewan MacGregor and his friend Charley Boorman as they rode motorcycles from London to New York, going East. So, this show of Ricky’s will feature Warwick Davis and Karl Pilkington riding a moped around the world.  According to Ricky, the plan is to have Warwick ride in a basket on the front, but I’m hoping this is a joke.  I don’t think they’ve started any filming yet, since I heard about this from a tweet Warwick …tweeted about getting preparatory inoculations. IMDB has air dates for this in December, but I’m not certain if that will be in the US or just the UK. Still, it’s something to look forward to.  Unlike Julian Fellowes, Ricky Gervais has never put out a show that I didn’t like.