We first came across Ricky Gervais’ fictional character ‘Derek‘ in April last year, and wrote a review of the pilot episode here:
The first complete series has now been produced, the first episode of which was broadcast last night on Channel 4.
The Guardian’s review of it, by Tim Dowling, is hopeless. There is nothing in ‘Derek’ to support Dowling’s view that Derek has an “undiagnosed mental health problem”. Dowling has missed the point completely. Derek has limited intellectual capability, but that doesn’t make him mentally ill. Neither does it make him unintelligent. It’s possible he has more social and spiritual intelligence than those who judge him negatively or consider him mentally ill. It’s possible he has far more empathy, sympathy, decency and kindness. It’s possible he’s far more emotionally literate. He may even be more mentally stable, resilient and healthy than many of those who look down on such characters, both on TV and in everyday life.
As JBowers points out in a comment posted ‘below the line’ on the review, at 5.19am,
Nobody can accuse Ricky of not doing research, as he is writing this from an informed standpoint. Marsha, his sister, works with learning-disability kids, his sister-in-law helps in a care home for people with Alzheimer’s, and his nieces work in old people’s homes.
Mark Lawson is another ‘reviewer’ who’s written a piece for today’s Guardian which draws ill-judged conclusions about ‘Derek’ and Ricky Gervais. He accuses Gervais of “mocking a figure with a disability in Derek”. He accuses Gervais of “soppiness” and of being “soft on a character whose identity remains too vague”. This is also complete nonsense – clearly written by a “cultural critic” who knows nothing at all about characters such as Derek – unlike Ricky Gervais.
It was easy enough to laugh at Gervais’s best-known character, David Brent – with his smarmy matiness and his stupid goatee – and how we all hate those ridiculous, egotistical office managers, with their pretentions, their desperate needs and desires, and their vacuous ambitions.
Neither was it hard to laugh at the other characters in The Office. Sure, you had some sympathy for them – having to put up with Brent and needing to spend all their days inside a hideous office doing dull things to make money for shareholders and company directors they’d never even met, let alone cared about. After all – they had free will and could have chosen not to do it. Millions of us have been there and done that – and resented every uncreative minute of the paper-pushing, emailing, photocopying, brain-deadening nightmare that’s the reality of most offices. Still, Gervais’s acute observational humour made you laugh, as well as squirm.
Gervais specialises in tragi-comedy, and the darker the better. He creates work that’s complex, multi-layered, uncomfortable . . . He writes brilliant comedy based on characters and situations, and on the human condition. But he can also entertain us, challenge us and discomfort us with tragedy and with disability – and we need our true artists to take us out of our comfort zones and into territory we’d normally avoid.
How many of us, for example, ever venture into a home for the elderly, or ever spend time with people who look and behave differently to ourselves? Derek works in a home for the elderly, as a general help and carer, even though he himself relies on the help and care of his co-workers in order to function in a confusing and frequently hostile world.
There’s nothing intrinsically funny or humourous about Derek. He’s not good looking and he behaves oddly. He’s not articulate, clever or charismatic. The thing about Derek is that he has a tremendous capacity for empathy, sympathy, affection, caring and love. He really cares about the well-being of his elderly clients – no matter how silent or batty or odd or ungrateful they might be. He cares and cares, he gives and gives, and, as we saw in the pilot episode, when one of them dies, he grieves – with a respectful, heart-broken, overwhelming grief.
Gervais has incredible guts to even play this character, let alone play scenes where Derek has to kneel at the bedside of an elderly ‘friend’ of his who has just died. And he plays it without smaltz or sentiment.
‘Derek’, the series, enables us and encourages us to focus on intelligences and virtues that have nothing to do with intellectual or academic accomplishment. For example, Derek’s young female colleague, Hannah, didn’t plan to follow a career as a carer in a home for the elderly, but it’s her love for the people whose lives she and Derek make more comfortable and bearable that keeps her in a low-paid, low-status job – effectively a nurse but without nursing qualifications or an equivalent salary. She knows she works in what most of us would consider an unglamouous backwater and that she’s living and working well out of the mainstream of human life, but she does the work because she has personal and spiritual qualities that enable her to do it effectively, and because she feels needed there.
This is life and work at the other end of the continuum from the wealthy bankers and chief executives and chairmen whom someone talked about recently as ‘mostly psychopaths’. You don’t have to be a psychopath to get to the top in business or banking, but apparently it helps.
Does anyone seriously doubt that it’s the ultra-bright but utterly ruthless, unfeeling and uncaring types within the banking and business community who got us all into the financial mess we’re in – because they didn’t care and didn’t stop to think about the social as well as the economic and financial consequences of what they were doing with their pyramid selling and their toxic financial ‘products’? Or is it the case that they were all too stupid to even realise what they were doing – lacking in real intellect as well as lacking in personal, social and spiritual intelligence?
Can we now please look very carefully at the values and the virtues needed to make the world go round – instead of just crashing it and ruining the planet? Can we please start to remake our world in order to make a fairer, more equal and more caring society that’s fit for decent people and for all the Dereks and Hannas of this world to live in?
Sure – ‘Derek’ has its moments of comedy and farce – as does all of human life. But it’s no more of a straightforward ‘comedy’ show than Gervais’ other creations – The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short. Gervais is far too clever and cynical and complex to settle for run of the mill sitcom or even satire. Keep pushing those ‘boundaries’, Ricky.
And if comedy and star status are what it takes to get certain subjects taken ‘seriously’ on national television, then even more power to your elbow. We need to talk seriously and regularly about multiple intelligences, intellectual capability, care for the elderly, the nature of bureaucracy, prejudice, ignorance, the caring professions, the people who work in them, and those who volunteer their help within them. And if we can have such ‘conversations’ with the assistance of laughter and popular entertainment, then we should be thankful for that.
By the way, Reluctant Dissident, do you write a blog at all? We liked these comments you wrote about ‘Derek’ under the Dowling review:
David Brent is a tragic character. He has talents but he tries too hard to be ‘professional’ and it makes the times when he tries to be intellectual ugly and clumsy. His flaws are largely unconscious but there are clearly (by the look on his face during the infamous dance scene) some of which he’s painfully aware. Isn’t that all of us on some level?
Gareth exactly the same, Finchy even and certainly the loverboy . . . They’re all absurd.
If anything Derek’s a tad less absurd. He’s obviously got problems with fitting in with other people, with knowing quite what’s going on, with sorting the important from the unimportant, but he gets on with life and has found ways to get by. If anything he’s someone we can look up to. If we’re more like David than Derek then is that something to be smug about? Vis-a-vis our own self-delusion that is, a propos our own performance in the internal market of the soul.
‘Derek’ is not sentimental. So far we’ve heard very little from the residents, but by the look of them they’re pretty varied, except for the lifestyle that’s being imposed upon them. It was genuinely tragic that Hannah recognised the need for them to experience everything that anyone else does, for we could see how doomed that good intention was. The scene with the dogs spoke volumes: even a basic lifeline of companionship is denied these inmates. No solutions offered, just a realistic snapshot of an existential situation that’s universally ignored.
Nothing sentimental about it and even that piano soundtrack isn’t especially sentimental. The blunt pathos of that style of music is slipped in well before any traditional linking to emotional content. It’s quite modernistic in that it anticipates (and is on a separate ‘track’ from) the literary content, rather than trying to match it. If you listen to it, it’s quite jagged and mechanical.
[The music happens to be by Ludovico Einaudi, whose entire body of work is etherial, beautiful and incredible. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CP5tS0Nb7TY Also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qvglWAHDak&list=AL94UKMTqg-9Ay9pKcP7K4WLmlE_GjKuqE]
It’s not at all sentimental. The Office was all about the pretensions of a manager; Extras was all about the pretensions (and ultimately the slavishness) of actors: the celebrity cameos weren’t grafted on – they were the point: that a nobody like Andy was no different to various types of people who’d ‘made it’ in various ways. Unlike Brent, Milman succeeded, but rather than take it to the next level in a separate series, the celebrity actors completed the set, showing that no matter how successful, the ambitions and pretensions of a human soul are always absurd.
The difference with Derek is that his main ambition seems to be to live a life. Gervais has gone the other way: this man isn’t seeking to place himself above others (as a manager or an actor or a writer or whatever) but just to get by. Dougie likewise, and in both cases they’re ‘not quite right’, but are they people with disabilities? Not necessarily. It’s a fine line.
But make no mistake, this has nothing to do with stylised, sentimental views of some situation or other: it’s about all of us, deep down, being fragile, flawed, alone and absurd, doomed to fail in a world without meaning.
”Derek” is a vital piece of drama for our times. The unease you feel, and are projecting onto the programme and refining into a criticism of its writer, is an unease at the subject-matter being discussed at all.
Most people at Gervais’ career point, having made their fame and fortune not once but twice, having broken into film and so forth, would be just about getting to the stage where they start to suck. They’ll either tone it down a bit, or else take things to the extreme for the sake of it, or try something stupid that they’re not capable of pulling off.
Gervais on the other hand is doing something daring, in the teeth of unjustified criticism, not least against him personally for some off-the-cuff remarks he’s made over the years. It works, it’s well written, effective, shocking and moving.
There’s politics in there but it’s never ‘issues’ television. There’s always more than one side to the story we’re being shown and it’s very hard for us to preserve our favourite world views in the face of the often conflicting evidence.
You particularly give the Derek character a hammering. Why? He’s wonderful. On the one hand he’s the consequence of society’s current obsession that anybody capable of working must do so: of course they’re going to end up in care homes and the like. But you know what? Not only does he care (and genuinely so but without the slightest sentimentality) but he’s good at his job, pays full attention to detail and remembers everyone’s name. You feel uneasy that he gets the piss taken? – well welcome to our world. Not everybody does take pains to ensure the dignity of others and sometimes the resilience that Derek and Dougie have built up to that is the best strategy available.
Derek’s speech about getting a diagnosis, likewise. Marvellous stuff. Of course the council dude is a little bit caricatured, but not excessively and actually I bet there’s real examples who are every bit as bad as that. In the end they’re still gunning for ordinary people whether it’s an unqualified person fixing a toaster or a care home that dares to be small.
I wonder whether Hannah’s statistic about inmates dying after being moved is real. It would be justified dramatically either way but if it’s real then it makes the series even more important: WHO ELSE is speaking for these people?
Before I post this wall of text which still doesn’t do sufficient justice to this immensely important and interesting drama, I just want to quote another post that I can see under the box I’m writing in:
Furthermore, the episode took a deeply unfashionable setting, and showed only the good in it, and there’s something vaguely heroic about that.
Couldn’t agree more.