Breaking Good: Ricky Gervais’ warm-hearted new show “Derek” declares “kindness is magic”

Ricky Gervais as the title character in "Derek", his new comedy with a heart of gold.Ricky Gervais as the title character in "Derek", his new comedy with a heart of gold. (Photo: Netflix)

Amid the current onslaught of antiheroes, vulgarity, ultraviolence, and mean-spirited exploitation that constitutes much of what’s offered for entertainment emerges a British TV comedy that orbits around an unlikely theme: the power of simple kindness.

And that show, Derek, is the creation and star vehicle of an even unlikelier source: Ricky Gervais, who rose to fame through the did-he-really-say-that cringe comedy of the original British version of The Office.

Derek uses the same “documentary filmmakers on-site” device as The Office, but that’s where the similarities end. Swinging far away from the pathologically self-absorbed office boss David Brent, this time around Gervais plays Derek Noakes, a likely-autistic caregiver at the Broadhill retirement home whose true joy come from doing good for others (well, that and YouTube hamster videos).

Throughout the seven episodes that first aired on BBC 4, Derek’s unfiltered mind leads to a fair amount of benign anarchy in that attempt to do good, but Broadhill director Hannah indulges all this with a laugh and a shake of her head. “He’s got a heart of gold, doesn’t he?” she says about Derek. “A shame more people aren’t like that, really.”

And while strong lines run throughout the show of forgiveness, accepting people as they are and encouraging their better nature to emerge, it’s the riffs on caring and kindness that seem to have captured the popular imagination.

There are simple, touching moments.

Derek loves all animals—snails, tadpoles, baby birds—and has a special affection for helpless ones. One time he finds a worm drying out in the garden sun. He wants to wet its head in the little pond, but after Hannah points out it doesn’t seem to have one, he gleefully wets both ends “just in case” and carefully places it in the shade.

In another bit, Derek says to Dougie the handyman (played hilariously straight by Gervais’ radio sidekick Karl Pilkington) after a funny exchange about whether the residents would ever get as old as tortoises, “What would you do if you was old, like a tortoise, and someone said, ‘Oh, don’t bother with him, he’s a hundred.’ I’d save you. I wouldn’t care how old you was.”

But the most affecting moment comes right in the pilot episode, when Derek’s favorite resident, Joan, passes away. The documentary crew interviews Derek afterward, and he tearfully recalls the times when he accidentally goofed things up around Joan, and how she always forgave him with love:

“She’d tap me on the head and it’d make me feel better straight away. Like magic. And she said, ‘Kindness is magic, Derek. It’s more important to be kind than clever, or good-looking.’ I’m not clever or good-looking, but I’m kind.”

Now that phrase—“kindness is magic”—seems to be taking on a life of its own. People are creating t-shirts and stickers and such emblazoned with the phrase, and a Derek fan site, tadpolehitler.com (to find out why the site name is humorous and not offensive you have to watch the show), has launched a “Kindness is Magic” fundraising initiative to benefit the UK-based charity, Friends of the Elderly.

All seven episodes of Derek‘s first season are being offered as exclusive streaming content by Netflix. Here’s the trailer:

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