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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

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The British Christmas special

There is a Christmas tradition as popular in the UK as mince pies: the Christmas special. Popular TV shows generally have a stand-alone special episode airing in the week of Christmas (or on Christmas day itself).  Unlike most TV series here, these Christmas episodes are not within a specific season but stand alone (usually at the end of a season or a few months after the end).  I may be wrong, but this might be partially because the TV seasons/series in the UK do not run Fall-Spring, like they do here.

Some of the most famous Christmas specials in the recent past were shows like the Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses (these specials continued to air at Christmas years after the series itself was cancelled), as well as shows more known on this side of the pond, like The Office and Doctor Who. From what I have read, the Christmas special episodes of the two big soap operas, Eastenders and Coronation Street, are always the most depressing episodes of the year. And these are soap operas for whom melodrama is an understatement. According to tvtropes.org, people gather around to watch the emotional and physical carnage.  Fun.

This year, I saw two Christmas specials that made their way across the pond in one form or another: Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. Before I get into those specific episodes, I’d like to talk about my favorite Christmas specials in British TV history.

The Office UK Christmas Special

The Christmas Special for The Office UK also functioned as the series finale (a habit of Ricky Gervais’ apparently), so it was extra meaningful. It was a two part special (or two specials, according to some) that aired on December 26th and 27th in the UK in…whatever year it was.  Things are quite different in the special than they  were in the series, with Dawn and whats-his-name off in Florida, David Brent trying to make a career in Comedy, and Gareth the manager of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg.  Of course the Tim and Dawn relationship is the big story of the specials, and it makes me happy and sappy every time I watch it, partially because of my intense love for Martin Freeman.  But another key moment is one that advances the slow story of David Brent becoming a human being.  He meets a nice woman who he likes, and who likes him.  That alone is lovely, but the best part (perhaps of this entire TV show) is when he stands up for her to Chris Finch (worst person ever).  Every time I see that I have renewed faith in his ability to evolve as a character.  The US Office presented a much more sympathetic boss, but David Brent walks a fine line between being irritating and being empathetic, which I think is more accurate and realistic.

Extras Christmas Special

Again, Ricky Gervais chose to end his series with a Christmas special.  This one has Andy Millman choosing between commercial success and artistic integrity.  In the end, he firmly says no to commercial success for its own sake, though I’m not sure he’s any closer to artistic integrity.  Again, he evolves as a person and that is rewarding, though not in the same way as occurred in the Office finale.  The best part of this special is undoubtedly the last five minutes, when he finally stops being an utter ass.

Christmas Tardis

There has been a Doctor Who Christmas special every year since David Tennant took over in 2005.  In fact, the Christmas special was the first appearance of the tenth Doctor.  Unfortunately, they haven’t all been gems. David Tennant spends most of 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” asleep (literally), and we are stuck with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey the Idiot. In “the Runaway Bride”, Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a very argumentative pseudo-companion and the whole episode isn’t very Christmas-y, though there is a return of the Santa Claus robots that plagued London the previous year. A high point of 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” is the Doctor discovering that everyone in London leaves each Christmas, because there has been an invasion for the last two years.  Little moments where the show pokes fun at itself really make it worth watching.  Each Christmas special has some really spectacular visuals, but often times they are not the best episodes taken on their own.  I’m not a fan of “The Next Doctor” and “The End of Time” left me heartbroken and angry.  “A Christmas Carol” had Michael Gambon, but that was the best thing about it.

And this year? This year was called “The Snowmen” and I have to say I think it was the best Christmas special they’ve had. The visuals were great, though I am very partial to Victorian England so that may have had something to do with it. Also, though, most of our current Christmas traditions emerged in Victorian times, so it’s a very Christmasy looking episode.  We see the return of Oswin, confusingly, and we see some very creepy snowmen.

Doctor Who Snowmen

My personal favorite part was the Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes.  Hilarious.  After a lackluster first part of the seventh season, this episode gave me a lot of hope for when the show returns in the Spring.

Christmas at Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has now had two Christmas specials, and I can’t say I cared for either of them.  The first one, did at least take place at Christmas, however!  And the ending was much happier.  It took place in 1919/1920, and there were sad points (Bates being convicted of murdering his wife) but there were happy moments (Matthew and Lady Mary finally getting together). It had some emotional resonance because of that fact.  This year’s Christmas special was …infuriating.  Warning to all who have not (in a totally legal way) seen season three and its special–spoilers!

This year’s Christmas special took place just a few months after the last episode of season three, though it did not take place at Christmas time. The Grantham family goes north to Scotland to visit the super annoying Lady Rose, and now we know that she will be in the show regularly from now on–much to my chagrin. The men stalk deer (in deerstalkers…). Edith continues to settle for unavailable and unworthy men, in an effort to have someone at all. I don’t really like her.  A strumpet of a housemaid starts making eyes at Tom Branson,  A rotund grocer tries to marry Mrs. Patmore because he is deeply in love with her sandwiches. Thomas is beaten nearly to death by ruffians after a highly contentious game of Tug of War (really?).  But there’s just one thing that really makes news in this special.

If you follow the gossip about DA at all, you know already that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew, is leaving the show.  I had heard that he would be in a few episodes the following season, just to end his run, but apparently not.  Mary is very pregnant in the special, and as soon as I saw that, I had an inkling.  A few loving and tender moments between Mary and Matthew throughout the special clinched it. By the time Mary was giving birth, I knew it would be a boy, because they need an heir, and I knew it was curtains for the Tramp Matthew.  Also, whenever anyone in any movie goes out for a ride/drive and are extremely happy, they’re going to be killed in a car accident.  For proof of this precedent, see City of Angels, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.  It was just really predictable.  And not Christmasy.  And not fun.  And I feel that Julian Fellowes has just killed off too many people in this show.  The death of the heir on the Titanic starts the first episode, but on camera we have the deaths of William, Mr. Pamuk, Sybil, Lavinia, all of the minor characters who die on and off screen, and now Matthew.  It’s a lot for three seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on for seven seasons, featured a town rife with earthquakes, vampires, demons, gods, and every other nasty thing…and though there were a ton of red shirt deaths, only a few major characters were killed.  Just saying.  I found this Christmas episode irritating and disappointing.

I find that Christmas specials sometimes put together everything trite and overwrought that the creators can envision for the series.  It’s very rare that they get it right, and manage to convey a Christmas theme and an important part of the life of their characters.  What I do like about a Christmas special is that it adds some pomp and circumstance to the holiday.  In America, the Christmas episode of a show is just part of the season, and usually airs about three weeks prior to the holiday.  In the UK, these specials can happen when the show isn’t even on the air anymore–Christmas is important enough to mark out on its own. I don’t even like Christmas, but I like a Christmas special.  I wish we had them here. Though, I prefer when Ricky Gervais is in charge of them, not Julian Fellowes.

Top 5 British Everything! part 2

Ok, time for yet another installment in my ever-growing number of pointless lists! First off, my picks for top 5 British TV shows.  You’ve no idea how difficult this was!  I can’t imagine how much harder it would be if I’d actually seen large amounts of British TV, not just the stuff that trickles across the pond.

1. The Office/Extras

I’m cheating a little bit by putting these together.  They are both written and starring Ricky Gervais, so it is justified, but I love them enough that they might deserve individual spots on the list.  Too bad, though, because I don’t have enough room for that!  I think the Office was my first introduction to British TV, and I have to admit it took me at least two watch-throughs to understand what the fuck they were saying.  The accents are thick, but the show is also completely full of utterly unintelligible cultural references that I still don’t get.  But the parts I could understand were hilarious.  I can only guess how much funnier it is if you have any idea what they’re talking about.  Luckily, the DVD provides a slang glossary that explains some of it.

Ricky Gervais’ David Brent is hilarious in the show, but of course my heart belongs to Martin Freeman (who is becoming a common fixture on this blog), as Tim.

Extras is a bit more easy to digest for an American audience (though I hear they actually changed some of the scenes for the American audience), and has a mind-boggling amount of guest stars.  Just to name a few: Ben Stiller, Vinnie Jones, Kate Winslet, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L Jackson, David Bowie, and, most importantly, Daniel Radcliffe in possibly the most hilarious scene ever on tv.

As with the Office, my favorite character on this show is not Ricky Gervais. Stephen Merchant is a very odd looking fellow, especially with the ludicrous glasses and hair he has in this show.  He looks a bit like a stick insect with a turtleneck and thick spectacles.

It doesn’t help that the guy is something like 12 feet tall.  But anyone who has seen Extras, or played Portal 2 knows how awesome he is.  Plus, he co-created the Office and Extras with Ricky, so I like that he gets to be on camera in this show.

It’s interesting to think about Ricky Gervais’ shows.  He always has himself as the central character, and he always plays a semi-terrible person, surrounded by much nicer characters.  This simultaneously makes me think he is an incredibly egotistical, but also very self-deprecating person.  Whatever his motives, his shows are hilarious.

2.Doctor Who

A couple of disclaimers before I explain my love for Doctor Who: 1-I have only seen the newest incarnations of the show, and don’t really have much desire to go back and watch the episodes from the ’70s, 2-David Tennant is the only Doctor for me, 3-The production values on the show are terrible, the effects are terrible, occasionally the music is terrible–I acknowledge all of this, and love the show anyway.

Here’s a show that makes almost no sense, on the face of it.  The concept is ridiculous: time traveling alien with two hearts and one sonic screwdriver travels through time/space (usually ending up in England, for some reason) with human companions finding and solving catastrophes that usually have something to do with aliens.  Many of these aliens look like ‘pepper pots‘ or cheesy 50s robots.

Add to that some truly low-budget effects and Billie Piper’s annoyingly overdone mascara, and it should be a terrible show.  But it’s not.  It’s witty, funny, adventurous, light-hearted, occasionally moving, and always worth watching.  Also, it’s a bit uncanny that the show can have had 11 different actors portray the eponymous Doctor and still have you believe that he is the same person.  Rather ingenious, the way the writers worked that into the character’s back story.  I’ve watched through three doctors now, and while Tennant will always be my favorite, I liked seeing how each one brought a new idea to the same frantic and infectious energy at the core of the show.

3. Fawlty Towers

A classic British show from the ’70s starring John Cleese and his actual (then) wife as Mr. and Mrs. Fawlty, who run a small hotel on the English seaside. Basil Fawlty (Cleese) is a cowardly misanthrope who is constantly yelled at by his controlling wife, and he, in turn, takes out his anger on Manuel, the Spanish waiter with limited English skills.  It was voted one of the best British tv shows of all time, and is actually more popular now than I think it was when it originally aired.  It’s a slapstick, over-the-top sort of show, which took me a while to get into, I confess.  It’s certainly not the sardonic, mockumentary style of humor you’d find in the Office.  It’s totally different, and more in line with the traditional British sitcom.  There are only twelve episodes of the show (2 six-episode seasons), so you can polish off the whole series in a few days’ time.  The show gets better with each episode, and by the end of the first season, I was hooked.  If you’re in the mood for something silly, Fawlty Towers is perfection.

4. Sherlock

What’s this? Martin Freeman again?  I’m sensing a theme.  If you recall, I’ve already done a few posts about this show and my love for it. As such, I won’t repeat myself.  I will say, however, that this show is about to overtake Fawlty Towers, and maybe Doctor Who, in my long-term estimation and adoration.  It is a paragon of everything you can do with TV drama.

5. The Inbetweeners

This show is, without a doubt, the sickest thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time.  But, as it’s about 16-18 year old boys, that makes sense.  It is painfully embarrassing to watch, shockingly foul-mouthed, and absolutely hilarious.  It taught me at least 5 new, incredibly awful words for female genitalia, unfortunately. That’s the sort of show it is.  I didn’t want to like it, what with absolutely every other line being horrifying, but it is too damn funny to ignore. Plus, the knowledge that absolutely all of these boys are completely clueless makes their slightly misogynistic tendencies more bearable.  There was also a movie, which I saw thanks to a multi-region dvd player–I don’t think it was ever released in US theaters or on format 1 dvd.  If you doubt how funny this is, a scene from the movie should clear it up:

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Honorable Mention: Top Gear, Downton Abbey–It was very, very difficult for me to pick just 5 shows, and as I have already talked about these two on this blog, I’ve left them as honorable mentions rather than putting them in the top 5.  Nonetheless, they are awesome.

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British Music–if the tv shows were hard to choose (and they were), this was like choosing between my children…if I ever had them and was faced with a Sophie’s Choice type situation… The point is, this was really hard. The only easy choice was number one…

1. The Beatles

I’m fairly certain that anyone who has spent more than half an hour with me knows this is my favorite band of all time.  I can’t even begin to discuss the amount of influence the Beatles have had on my life, or on music in general.  There’s nothing I can say about them as musicians that hasn’t already been said.  What I can say about my personal love for them, is that it all has to do with my mom.  She loved the Beatles and played 60s and 70s music almost exclusively when I was growing up.  As a result, I went into middle and high school knowing all the lyrics to I Am the Walrus, while other kids were really into N Sync.  Not to imply that I was some sort of cool music kid, I was not cool in any way, but I do appreciate that I was exposed to this sort of music from an early age.  It is much more in keeping with my views on music and on the world, and every time I hear a Beatles song, even if it’s one I’ve never heard before, it’s the aural equivalent of nostalgia.  It sounds like home to me.

2. David Bowie

I got into Bowie late in life…Or late in life so far. I think I was 24 or 25 before I set out to listen to some of his stuff.  It was never on the radio when I was growing up…Too old to be on the top 40 stations, too new to be on the oldies station.   And, where I grew up, we had those two kinds of stations, plus a lot of country music and some religious crap.  So I wasn’t directly exposed to Bowie until I set out to listen to his stuff.  Wow.  Within about a day, I was in love. I think I had probably heard his stuff in other contexts, in movies and commercials, but never in its original form.  To this day, Suffragette City is one of my favorite songs ever. The best thing about Bowie is that his songs have variety–Suffragette City doesn’t sound anything like Changes or China Girl.  My biggest annoyance with today’s music is that you can put on any song on someone’s album and it will sound identical to every other song.  The only distinctions are slow or fast.  But back in the day, musicians felt like they could experiment with something new if they wanted to.  I think it was even expected.  This means that you can find something to listen to by the same artist, even if you’re in a vastly different mood.  Which means there is a Bowie song for every occasion.  He even wrote a special song for Extras!

3. The Rolling Stones

When I was young and first formulating my opinions on music, as we all do in our early teens, this is what the Stones looked like:

Not something any teenager associates with being cool, or being alive for that matter.  They all look like the Cryptkeeper.  But, take a look at how awesome they were in their heyday.

It’s a bit like looking at pictures of your dad when he was young, and realizing he was not always interested in mortgages or the price of a good recliner.  Anyway, I still dislike most of the Stones later catalog, particularly ‘Love is Strong’.  But their early stuff is just amazing!  Enough to make up for most of the stuff they put out in the ’90s, and almost good enough to overcome Keith Richards’ appearance in that Pirates of the Caribbean movie!  My particular favorites are Paint it Black, Sympathy for the Devil, and Beast of Burden.

4. Queen

Like many of my generation, my first introduction to the music of Queen was during Wayne’s World.  Thank God for Wayne and Garth. Queen was an amazing band, and Freddie Mercury was a seriously stunning frontman. Google frontman, and the first result is a Wiki article on lead singers with a picture of Freddie Mercury. That says it all.

Like David Bowie, Queen have the capacity to sound radically different depending on the song you’re listening to.  Another One Bites the Dust sounds nothing like Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and nothing sounds anything like Bohemian Rhapsody. Seriously, has there ever been a song that is as fun to sing as Bohemian Rhapsody?  If you think you can argue with me, watch this:

5. the Clash

What can you say about such an important band?  They were one of the first punk bands ever? They were one of the best punk bands ever? A lot of people have heard of the Clash but might not be familiar with their songs.  Only, I’m sure you’ve heard them, even if you didn’t know it at the time.  I’m sure everyone has heard Should I Stay Or Should I Go, but it doesn’t sound like a punk song when you hear it, and I don’t think I knew it was the Clash until later in life. The Clash isn’t a mainstream band, by any means, but it is not something so esoteric that you can’t appreciate the songs without a music degree.  And in terms of influence on later musicians and on the direction of music at the time, they were hugely important.

I am aware that this list has been full of men.  I am not someone who thinks women cannot be great musicians, but I am someone who listens to older music, and there were a lot less of them back then.

Honorable Mention–Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Amy Winehouse, the Streets, the Who

What kind of ridiculous list has Led Zeppelin as an honorable mention?!  Good God. I’m too exhausted to continue! I was going to torture you all with my favorite bits of British history, and other factoids of a comparatively useless nature, but I will desist. Maybe next time.