Now available on a screen near you: 'Derek' shows the complicated life of a nursing home administrator

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Staff Writer Tim Mullaney
Staff Writer Tim Mullaney

I sat down to watch an episode or two of “Derek” over the weekend. I thought I'd write a blog about my impressions of this Ricky Gervais show set in an English nursing home, newly released on Netflix. I ended up binge-watching all seven episodes of the first season.

If you've heard anything about “Derek,” chances are you've heard about how this show represents an about-face for its star. Gervais, known for his work as a cringe-inducing boss in the original version of “The Office,” here plays the title character, a nursing home worker who is so kind-hearted that at least one review compares Derek to Jesus.

Gervais transforms himself into a kind of character we've seen before — think Forrest Gump. Derek has an undefined physical and/or mental condition that manifests itself in an odd gait, social unease (he's friendly but often shies away from eye contact) and occasional cognitive hiccups. I found Gervais' performance as Derek very captivating, but by the time I reached episode three or four, my interest had really been captured by a different performer and character: Kerry Godliman, playing the nursing home director, Hannah.

While Gervais' acting was enough to keep me interested in Derek, there's not a lot of conflict around his character. He's consistently kind and a little (or a lot) slow on the uptake, which doesn't lend itself to high drama. Here's a scene that I think illustrates why I was drawn so much more to Hannah than Derek. The two of them are sitting in a pub, and a few trampy women are trash-talking Derek, commenting on his ugly clothes and odd appearance. Derek is confused by this, and asks if they are talking about him. Hannah is the one who suggests they leave the pub, protects Derek's feelings, and ultimately head-butts one of the trash talkers before hustling Derek out of the bar.

Hannah is the more active and, I think, ultimately the more interesting character. And I think that's a good thing for the show, because Hannah shows just how harrowing — and inspiring — it can be to manage a nursing home. In episode two, it's Hannah who has to whip the residence in shape for a survey. It's Hannah who guides the inspectors on a comically terrible tour, who has to smooth things over and ultimately hear and respond to bad news from the surveyors.

In later episodes, the audience sees how difficult it is to maintain a work-life balance when you've got so much emotional investment in the people under your care — and so many challenges from regulators, recalcitrant staff, residents' family members with ugly motives, and a society that doesn't always understand or value eldercare professionals. I found the storyline involving Hannah's attempts to forge a romantic relationship one of the most satisfying, because it showed how much her job defined her, and how it both provided her with a sense of well-being and caused her to sabotage her well-being.

As an LTC professional, you'll no doubt find many things in this show wildly implausible, but I think it gets many things very right, including its portrayal of Hannah.

Critical response to “Derek” has been mixed, but it will be back for a second season. And if I spoke with the producers, I'd have only one suggestion: Rename it “Hannah.”


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.