Louie, staring, written, directed, &c. by Louis C.K. and Derek, staring, written, &c. by Ricky Gervais are two of the very best shows on television. Both have, in their own way, redefined what the 'half hour comedy' can do.
Though the half hour format of both these shows can be stifling. It's always difficult to fulfill a complete narrative in 30 minutes (and both of these shows, as it is with all half hour shows, aren't the full 30 minutes). Even more difficult is to establish a set-up, move through an idea and, eventually, produce an emotional payoff for the viewer. What I have found very interesting is how these two shows approach the same task, the emotional payoff, very differently.
The first season of Derek was an event on television. An in some way disabled man with a heightened sense of emotion and caring lives and works in an old age home. The first episode produces the first casualty. Derek's favorite resident dies. As viewers it all works well. We see the set up of Derek working and living with these kindly old people. The way people tip toe around him. The way they speak to the camera, in mockumentary fashion, of how he makes everyone a better person because he is caring and giving and selfless. Every subsequent episode rode the emotional upheaval of this first one. Other people die. Uncaring children come to visit seemingly only in hopes of receiving a cherished, and pricey heirloom. The relationship between Derek and Dougy, Hannah, Kevin, and the residents grows in an interesting fashion. The characters are well drawn, believable, and when Derek's long lost father arrives in the final episode, the true nature of Derek's kindness shows. His ability to forgive.
What I'm saying is the first season is incredible, moving, funny and, above all else, it works because all the pieces are in place. Though a viewer might feel emotionally manipulated at times, it seems as though it's for all the right reasons. Relationships are created. There are stakes to people's actions. The goal of the show is to watch Derek working with and around the people of the retirement home.
Now, with the second season, it feels as though the focus has shifted to Ricky Gervais' personal causes. I follow Gervais on Twitter and he is a supporter of animal rights, atheist causes, and truly dislikes stupid pompous people. It feels as though his causes have taken over the show, though. There has been little to do with the elderly and Derek's interaction with them this season. One woman gets a full wax before going on a date. A man gets a wig. But the elderly people have become nameless, shuffling masses sitting in chairs in the background knitting or watching television. The star is truly Derek and the setting has taken a back seat. This series could be based anywhere now. Hannah's pregnancy has become a main story topic. Which is a set-up, of course. A place for Derek to accidentally tell everyone about this moment before the couple can. Hannah's crumbling life has become a major part of the series. But with the half hour format, it is difficult to really get involved. Plus, for perfect Derek, there is no room for growth. Things happen TO Derek, and we watch as he stoically moves forward and past them. When you have a perfect protagonist, there is no room for real, substantial change.
What I'm getting at is that the emotional payoff for this show is sudden, abrupt, and almost without any lead time. Kevin doesn't get a job. Fair enough. Most of an episode is devoted to this and we get to see more of Kevin and his peculiar ways. But then other major events, Hannah losing the baby for instance, are sudden and feel tacked on. The group go to a zoo where we see at least 12 minutes of Derek playing with animals. Then Hannah loses the baby. I no longer feel as though we're being brought through the story and, instead, are being handed emotional wallops for effect. Yes, it is a tragic event, losing a baby must be awful. But as viewers we have been told how much Hannah wants a baby. The father is in some scenes but rarely speaks. This is an event which will effect Hannah deeply, but what does it do for the protagonist, Derek? It seems the exact same thing it does for him when someone dies, a dog has to be put down, or a bird is injured. He talks about it, weeps, and then the episode ends.
Louie, on the other hand, is doing its' best to drag the stories out so that you feel with the characters, not for them. Empathy over sympathy. I feel sorry for Hannah, but in much the same way that you feel sorry for someone you vaguely know when something happens to them. Louie's issues feel more real. And very much more based on what the lead character would think and feel and he brings you along for the ride. In the extended 'Elevator' episodes, we see Louie not want to get involved with an elderly woman stuck in an elevator. But he does. Which leads him to meet the woman's niece. He moves on to date the niece, though she speaks no English. (for translations of the Hungarian see: http://www.reddit.com/r/louie/comments/26kpte/s04e0708_elevator_part_4_elevator_part_5/ )
She interacts with his kids. They get along on a different level than he has ever experienced before. Louie is lost in this love. I feel as though I am going along for the ride here. I feel for him when things don't work. When he has to scream out the window and no one notices (because how much of this season is actually just in Louie's head, his imagination?). When Jane gets off the subway I feel the terror. I understand him yelling at her until everyone is in tears. The conflict between Louie and his ex-wife, though at best a B story, is suddenly brought to the forefront and examined perfectly. There is, for every emotional event, a lead up of some description. Often the lead up is an entanglement of many plots coming together, making Louie's life seem real.
It feels as though the real difference between these two shows is that Louie is using the half hour comedy to examine, in detail, a man's life. Almost like a novel. Whereas Derek has taken the traditional half hour single camera comedy and twisted it slightly. The laughs are still there, but they are based on awkward situations (like all of Gervais' work). Whereas Louie has delved deeper into expanding television, making it work in different ways than it ever has before, and in much different ways than movies ever can, Derek has fallen back a step, not looking for laughs, but pressing points and then emotionally blind siding the viewer.
With Louie we live each and every situation. We feel for him. We don't want to help that lady in the elevator either. Why get involved? But he does, eventually, and it turns into something good. Louie is more connected to the world because he reached out beyond his comfortable circle. We watch the man grow and change and examine his life. Whereas with Derek we see a static character, the best, most kind person ever, do a few things and then weep when a dog has to be put down or his friend's dreams are smashed.
In the end, the two series are very different. Derek, is all about sympathy. Louie is all about empathy. If you have had experiences like the ones we see in Derek, then you will be emotionally effected. If you have not, many of these situations are easy to brush off. Whereas with Louie, you don't need to have lost a child on a subway, suffered a divorce, loved someone you can't communicate with, because Louie does it for you, and brings you along for the ride.
It feels like the true difference between show (Louie) don't tell (Derek). Which is very literal as well, as Derek is a mockumentary and, therefore, all about telling.