Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Usually, when the credits roll, one name isn’t found far from the other. And while they have dabbled in various solo projects since the international explosion of The Office, September 2013 saw a unique series of events—the premiere of Merchant’s HELLO LADIES on HBO, and the (US) premiere of Gervais’ DEREK on Netflix. Two series, two Brits, and nothing to tie the two together. This is the first time Ricky and Steve each get to wear the ‘director/writer/producer/star’ hat (it is a very ornate hat) without the other’s involvement.
So, get to the point, Millstein; HOW’S THE SHOWS?
I haven’t quite decided yet. I’m a long-time fan of the duo—particularly of The Ricky Gervais Show podcast and EXTRAS, which I would place in my top 10 for sure—but these two shows immediately establish themselves as different beasts.
LADIES stars Merchant as Stuart, a British transplant to Los Angeles whose sole objective is to pick up women on the Hollywood club scene. Given that premise, my hopes and expectations for the series were that it would be an extended version of a favorite scene from EXTRAS, where dimwitted agent Darren Lamb (Merchant) tries to chat up birds at the pub. And in the first scene of the pilot, we’re treated to just that, albeit with a slight change of flavor. Unlike the socially clueless Darren, whose “game” consists of assuring a girl that he can “get everything done” in “ten minutes, max,” Stuart is much more brash and impolite:
STUART: Where are you guys from?
GIRL 1: From here.
STUART: Can’t do anything with that, (beat; to GIRL 2) what about yourself?
When GIRL 2 says Seattle, he tells her it’s the suicide capital of America. The disgusted girls leave and Stuart places full blame on his wingman, Wade. Stuart’s pattern of disregard for the thoughts and feelings of other characters is soon revealed to be the linchpin of the series. Not only is he rude, but he’s also dishonest, stingy, and thoughtless. As a result, he is repeatedly humiliated and defeated – sic semper assholes in a Stephen Merchant show.
And so it goes. Again and again and again, it’s a dozen eggs on Stuart’s face. Hell, even Meet the Parents followed 80 minutes of Focker-bashing with that adorable cat bringing her the diamond ring. As of episode 3, there are no happy endings to be found for Stuart (or his aspiring-actress housemate, or his chubby bumbling best friend). If you’re like me, and have embraced cringe comedy on Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this show will deliver in spades. To dip your toes in the water, watch the full series premiere HERE.
DEREK made its US debut in a binge-watchable, seven-episode Netflix dump, after a second season had already been ordered in the UK. However, it’s not the type of show you can burn through in a weekend. Like HELLO LADIES, DEREK is emotionally exhausting—except instead of wearing out your eeeesh-o-meter, it’s the waterworks that will be seeing some serious activity.
See, Derek Noakes (Gervais) is sort of a less fortunate Forrest Gump—he is naïve, simple, and often painfully honest. However, since he’s not a football hero or ping-pong wizard, he’s found a place at Broad Hill retirement home, where his kindness has made the elderly residents his best friends. Hannah, the home’s manager, is the one level head in the place, and fans will recognize Karl Pilkington and his ‘head-like-a-fucking-orange’ as Broad Hill’s handyman.
Remember when Forrest asked, “What’s my destiny, Momma?” and you got choked up, because you knew this one guiding voice in his life was about to be taken away from him, and he would have to face the world alone? Yeah. Derek works in a building full of old people, and we’re not even through the pilot before his favorite resident passes away.
When I finished mopping the tears off my floor, I realized that I had been caught completely off-guard. Sure, The Office and Extras had their sympathetic moments, but that was only when Gervais’s characters were at their absolute lowest—and followed full seasons of the same characters acting purely in their own self-interest. David Brent accepts a promotion at the cost of his employees’ jobs, and Andy Millman abandons his only friend and his artistic integrity in pursuit of fame.
BUT DEREK’S JUST A NICE GUY! Okay, so he falls in the pond and gets all wet, or accidentally sits in his custard, and I feel comfortable having a chuckle. But I don’t want anything bad to happen to him! And I want EVERYTHING bad to happen to Stuart because he’s a huge dick. In a weird way, I wish I could pull bits and pieces of both of these shows – LADIES’ horrifically warped social pratfalls and DEREK’s genuine (albeit occasionally cloying) heart and innocence. It’s almost as if it would be best if…
GERVAIS AND MERCHANT WORKED TOGETHER?!?!?!?
But seriously, folks, I’m going to keep watching and hoping that both shows find balance as we move further through their first seasons. As for you, if you’re more of a Modern Family person, you’d probably be best to steer clear of these two shows. Until you’re stronger.