Ricky Gervais has faced some doubt and come under a bit of scrutiny in the wake of certain career choices post-The Office and Extras (e.g. The Invention of Lying and Ghost Town). Granted, most of Gervais’ poor decision-making has not been affiliated with projects he’s actually written himself. His latest TV show, Derek, however, proves Gervais is still in perfect (comedic) form. Although Derek and The Office both share the mockumentary style, the two could not be more diverse in terms of approach. Plus, Derek also marks the beginning of Gervais’ Stephen Merchant-free writing era.
While Derek and The Office both highlight abysmal occupations, the foremost difference between the two is that Derek and his fellow employees adore their job working in a retirement home called Broad Hill, while those who work at Wernham-Hogg in The Office are just trying to get through the day without total mind loss (save for Gervais’ character, David Brent, who makes the office the center of his universe). Even though the lead characters that Gervais plays in each show share a certain similarity in their zeal for the organization, it is obvious that David Brent is a far more oblivious, in denial sort of man than Derek Noakes, who incidentally, bears a more childlike, naïve disposition (though, despite accusations to the contrary, is not autistic).
The supporting cast in each show also varies greatly in terms of their emotional backing of the main character. Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the supervisor at Broad Hill, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), the primary caretaker for each of the twenty-two residents there, and Kev (David Earl), a deadbeat sort of fellow that Derek has taken a shine to, are all Derek’s genuine friends. Conversely in The Office, David Brent’s sole enthusiast is Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook). Everyone else, like Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis), merely tolerate Brent because he's the type of boss to let them slack off so long as they oblige him by laughing occasionally at his jokes.
Another notable difference between the two comedies is that Derek is more brazen in addressing macabre subject matters, chiefly death. While The Office is remarkable for its candor regarding the utter mind-numbingness of office life (nothing on earth takes eight hours a day to accomplish!), it never broaches any topic so sinister as one's final days. And this is what Derek is all about; sure, there's moments of hilarity in the absurd, but, ultimately, it's a show about people who die a literal death--as opposed to the death of the soul that transpires within each character on The Office due to sacrificing themselves for a job they don't even want to do. Additionally, the moments of honesty in Derek are more frequent, as there aren't as many incidents or dialogue exchanges to promote a sense of levity.
If anything, Derek possesses a closer resemblance to Extras in terms of how far it is willing to go in its aura of melancholy. In fact, Hannah is not so unlike Andy Millman's (Gervais) best friend, the clueless Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), who hasn't made much of her life and doesn't really have the ambition or the inclination to do so. The two female leads are neither strong, nor particularly interesting, and yet, the sadness about them is what keeps us so engaged throughout each series.
Dougie, on the other hand, is in keeping with The Office character motif--most conspicuously in his correlation to Tim. Both characters harbor a humorous bitterness as they rue the choices they've made to lead them into their current existence. Dougie also conjures images from The Office in that he seems to be the character with the most memorable talking head time (of which there is markedly less than in The Office). His surly nature is one of the most frequent sources of comedic relief in Derek.
While Derek is certainly a come-up in Gervais' solo writing career--proving that the Gervais-Merchant alliance isn't totally necessary all the time--it is still missing the elusive "it" quality of The Office. To be sure, both shows are about as real as you can get on TV, but there is something about Derek that just doesn't ring quite as genuine or true. Though, suffice it to say, the transition from office walls to retirement home walls is a bleakly seamless one. Thank God (or whoever) we have Gervais around to add a dash of wit and playfulness to both phases of existence.