Ricky Gervais is a comedian familiar with controversy. His stage shows, movies and television series regularly build their stories on the borders of good taste. Irony and mockery are his tools of choice, as his alter egos David Brent and Andy Millman have discovered. Is he the best person to help us seriously evaluate our attitude towards the disadvantaged and disabled?
Gervais’ new comedy Derek introduces us to the staff and residents of a British aged care facility that is being threatened with closure. It’s pitched as a bitter-sweet comedy about awkward people who nonetheless demand our respect and sympathy. The series employs a mockumentary style similar The Office and Life’s Short to not only carry the story forward but provide insight into the characters’ thinking through intercut interviews. Kerry Godliman provides a heart-felt performance as Hannah the overworked home manager, and Karl Pilkington provides a convincing picture of anti-social maintenance worker Dougie. However the heart of the program is devoted to Derek, Gervais’ take on an unattractive, awkward staff member with developmental disabilities … maybe.
As the writer, director and star of the series Gervais has shrugged off criticism that he has produced a cruel satire about the disintegration of a disabled man by denying Derek has any disabilities:
“There is no argument. Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong.”
But it’s a hard accusation to defend when Gervais-as-Derek enters a room with a shuffling gate, fixes characters with a wide-eyed stare, speaks in stilted, nonsensical sentences and displays an inability to comprehend the replies he receives. On a bus ride into the city Derek sits too close the driver, prattling constantly in his ear,
“Why does Hampstead sound like hamster? Why has hamster got ham in it? Why isn’t a pig called a hamster?”
As the father of a boy with developmental disabilities, I recognize the characteristics of autism when I see them. It’s a little ingenuous of Gervais to suggest that he can create someone who looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck but still not be one. But is his portrayal cruel? Far from it.
Derek shows staggering sensitivity towards the characters who struggle through its episodes. Gervais brings them from the forgotten fringes of our society and puts them in prime time, but not for the sake of criticism. What’s being mocked here is the world that would prefer to forget them altogether, like the social services that would see their facility closed for greater economic efficiencies. “90% of care home residents die within six months of being re-homed,” Hannah confesses to the camera. “So I’m not going to let that happen. This is their home. They’ve got every right to stay here ‘til the end. Not a lot to ask is it?” No, it’s not. But is Ricky Gervais the one to put the question?
Derek can be considered in a sensible light, but what are people likely to take away from the series? In particular, the audiences that Gervais has previously taught to look down on his previous heroes? Can he spend more than a decade teaching us to laugh at people who don’t realise how stupid they are, and think that his Derek won’t suffer collatoral damage. Or, in short, how long before 16 year old boys start using ‘Derek’ as a shorthand for people who are mentally deficient? The fact that you can already buy official Derek t-shirts with the catchy quote, ‘I shat meself’ seems to suggest the worst.
Derek suffers from a lack of what the Bible refers to as wisdom. As the book of Proverbs puts it:
“If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”
There’s nothing wrong with blessing your neighbour, but the context can seriously change the intended effect. Gervais may say that comedy is about “… making people think,” but there are ways and ways. The Bible would say that we have to consider not just the intention of an action but the direction it is taking us and the people affected by it: towards God’s character or further away from it?
Release Date: Thursdays, 10:00 PM