It raised eyebrows and drew some mixed reviews, but Ricky Gervais’s Derek may not quite be over yet.
Does the world need more of Derek? Nearly a year and a half ago, Ricky Gervais’s unique comic/dramatic creation hit our screens, and prompted a maelstrom of opinion in the news as well as the arts pages, as commentators dissected both the ethics and aesthetics of an almost preternaturally nice but socially awkward character (although Gervais insisted Derek has no disability, and that that judgement is his solely his as the writer). Is such a portrayal patronising? Even bigoted? Is it good that it’s raising ‘awareness’? Are you laughing at Derek or with him? And, if the question is any different from the aforementioned, is the show actually any good?
It’s often hard to divorce the actor from the character, and criticism of the show arose from an idea of Gervais as a bully-boy
Derek got off to a shaky start, but grew into a gently comic and at times heartwarming character study. And even if the end result could reasonably be described as schmaltzy and patronising, it seems well-intentioned. Much American fare is reliant on one-liners and laughter tracks, while British comedy leans heavily on irony. As Gervais says: “The difference with [Derek] and other sitcoms, and certainly other sitcoms I’ve done, is that there’s no real vein of irony.” With satire, as technically difficult as it can be, those behind it aren’t really advocating anything or opening themselves up emotionally. It’s actually rather bold of Gervais to eschew cynicism and (faux) arrogance for positivity and sentiment.
It’s intriguing to question whether there would have been such a furore if an unknown actor had played Derek and a venerable, right-on writer such as Richard Curtis was behind him. It’s often, as here, very hard to divorce the actor from the character, and it seems a lot of the criticism of the show arose from an idea of Gervais as a bully-boy, taking jabs at different groups to cynically boost his career while using that ‘tired old’ excuse of merely ‘satirising’ prejudice. (In fairness, Gervais hardly helped himself by publicly using the word “mong” on his Twitter not too long before Derek’s first season. But if you look back to his other work, you can see that he has been ahead of many peers in casting disabled actors to play disabled roles, along with working with disability groups.)
The debate between offending and highlighting offence is an important and complex debate within comedy. But it’s clear where Gervais’s loyalties lie. Derek is, as the show’s name would suggest, the hero of the show, rewarded for his limitless generosity and selflessness by the friendship of the people in the care home in which he works – and his beloved animals. On the other hand, David Brent, with all his questionable and awkward social attitudes, is clearly the butt of the jokes. Granted, the viewer is laughing at/with Derek, but should vulnerable people in society be relentlessly mollycoddled, as if they need to be ‘protected’ from the ‘real world’? Or, as Derek is, shown as people with sometimes amusing failings and nuances just like everyone else?
There are several plot developments which would be left hanging if Derek did not return for at least one more season
There are several plot developments which would be left hanging if Derek did not return for at least one more season. Will Derek, having been on a date (with mixed success), find love, or at least something approaching it? Will Hannah and Tom have more luck with a child? Will Vicky find a nice boyfriend, like the bloke from the zoo? Will Kev become a functioning member of society? Derek Noakes himself would surely like the show to continue, so he can carry on spreading the love, in his own humble way: “Kindness is magic because it makes you feel good whether you’re the one handing it out or the one receiving it. It’s contagious.”
All images: Channel 4