When the Ricky Gervais show “Derek” hit Netflix last year, I sat down to check out an episode and ended up binge-watching the whole season, captivated by the storylines set in an English nursing home. With the second season — on Netflix now — I had the opposite experience. The first few episodes didn’t appeal to me, but the last few made me glad that I had stuck with the series. I was left misty-eyed and thinking about some significant long-term care issues, particularly the privacy implications of a “homelike environment.”
The first season introduced audiences to Derek, a kind-hearted nursing home worker who appears to be autistic, although he has never been formally diagnosed. Gervais really brings Derek to life, and the series is a great showcase for his acting talent. But I was more interested in a different character — Hannah, the nursing home director. I was hoping that the second season would focus even more on her.
On that score, I was disappointed. The second season begins by zeroing in not on Hannah but on Kev. He is a self-professed alcoholic who hangs around the nursing home guzzling beer all day and night, making lewd remarks and ogling all the women on the premises, regardless of their age or health status.
A commenter on my earlier McKnight’s blog complained that the show “screams abuse on so many levels.” Regulators would shut the place down, but I think we need to cut the show some slack: It’s a mockumentary, not a documentary. Still, Kev’s very presence in the nursing home seems like a form of resident abuse, and by episode three of the latest season, I was feeling a bit abused myself by his continued presence on the screen.
To my relief, the plot veered away from Kev, and the show settled into a better groove. It can sometimes “wander into the sugary sweet,” as one reviewer put it, but it doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings — it explores some important themes. This season was particularly interested in the idea of privacy.
“Homelike” is standard praise for a nursing home these days, denoting a place that has embraced person-centered care and welcoming environs. But “Derek” called to mind this fact: “Home” can be among the most complicated places in a person’s life, because it’s where family is. And with family comes not only love and affection but also resentments, squabbles and worse. Often, these conflicts stem from the lack of privacy that comes from sharing space with people day after day. (I won’t go into my own familiarity with this, but suffice it say that I’m one of five children.)
“Derek” illustrates this dynamic by taking the “homelike” long-term care setting to an extreme. Derek and Kev literally live at the facility (well, in a camper in the parking lot). And Hannah practically lives there — to the point where it’s the primary location for her efforts to conceive a child. Furthermore, the season begins with Derek’s father moving into the home, meaning that the residents aren’t just Derek’s de facto family but now include his actual family.
Time and again in season two, the scenes hinge on characters’ attempts to have some privacy. The whole facility is (more than) clued into Hannah’s intimate encounters with her boyfriend, but Hannah herself is the observer when Derek goes on his first-ever date, watching him through a restaurant window and sending dispatches back to the nursing home. Earlier in the season, the whole place was on alert when two of the residents went on a date and then to bed — at the same time, to the same room — at the end of the night (the facility’s sexual expression policy is very liberal).
Even when characters aren’t seeking private moments for intimacy, conflict sometimes arises from the fact that they simply are around each other so much. Yet, much like family, the characters are stuck with each other. The residents obviously are at their actual home, as are Derek and Kev. Tom’s grandmother is a resident, so he and Hannah and his “nana” make something of a family unit on-site.
Significantly, the jerky maintenance guy (a new addition this season) thinks he is about to be fired at one point, but Hannah does not hand him a pink slip. As much as it seems like the facility has organically become home for so many characters, we see in that moment that it hasn’t all just happened naturally — so many people consider the facility home because Hannah has purposefully created a welcoming space and treats the residents and staff like family. Ultimately, it’s a great place because of the strong connections that have been forged; the residents and staff not only get on each other’s nerves but comfort each other in times of strife and are generous with one another, helping each other to grow and change and become better people at every stage of life.
When “nursing home privacy” hits the headlines, the story often is about people outside the facility getting information from within, whether through a data breach or a covert photograph. This season of “Derek” explores how privacy constantly is negotiated within a nursing home, and it suggests that a more homelike environment might pose special challenges in striking a balance between the personal and the public. It’s an interesting take on a complex issue and left me looking forward to the next season — even if it means I have to spend more time with the likes of Kev.
Tim Mullaney is McKnight’s Senior Staff Writer. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.