I recently watched the premiere episode of Derek, a new dramatic comedy by Ricky Gervais; additional episodes are in the works but have not yet been released. In his words, it is about “a group of outsiders living on society’s margins. Derek Noakes (played by Ricky) is a tender, innocent man whose love for his job and the people he cares for shines through. He works in a retirement home with his mate and landlord, Dougie (Karl Pilkington). Derek cares deeply for old people.” In the opinion of some, such as author Christopher Stevens, this new series is anything but comedic.
Personally, I am utterly disgusted by this. When I say this, I mean the reactions to the premiere episode that are along the lines of what Stevens had to say. While people like Stevens watched Derek and saw Gervais acting “vile, cynical and dishonest,” openly mocking the disabled and being cruel to people with autism and Down Syndrome, I saw a beautiful story about a man without prejudice and with a huge heart, inviting the audience into his world and baring his soul for the camera. Derek combines comedy with heartfelt honesty, making the main character warm and funny, being humorous without making a mockery of himself. The humor is well-balanced by raw emotion as we see Derek’s coworker and friend, Hannah, express her affection for Derek and strongly defend him against those who don’t accept him due to his differences, then see how the passing of one of the retirement home’s residents breaks Derek’s heart and ultimately touches Dougie and helps solidify their friendship.
It saddens me that this emotional and funny premiere episode has been overshadowed by critics who claim that Gervais is simply poking fun at people with developmental disabilities. On the contrary, Derek is someone the audience can laugh with, not at. He is someone who strives to be treated as an equal and who we shouldn’t walk on eggshells around, afraid to find humor in his actions because to do so would be offensive. He is someone who cares about his friends deeply, perhaps deeper than most of us can imagine feeling about our friends and acquaintances. He is charming and lovable, innocent and unbiased, and a person more of us should try to be like.
Stevens claims that Derek’s friend and coworker, Hannah, is actually mocking Derek rather than being a friend to him. On the contrary, Hannah proves to be quite protective of Derek. She is quick to place blame on herself when Derek unintentionally embarrasses her with an attractive grandson of one of the home’s residents and she physically defends Derek against a group of ignorant women who mock him in a pub. Dougie, who Stevens says is ashamed to be on camera because of his friendship with Derek, does indeed express his annoyance with Derek’s behavior at some points which possibly comes from the actual relationship between Pilkington and Gervais. However, at the conclusion of the episode, Dougie goes out of his way to help Derek and ease some of the pain in his heart caused by the passing of the resident he was so close to.
Regarding Derek, Gervais has stated that he doesn’t think of him as disabled; he’s not that bright but is still a clever person, adding that when he portrays a disabled person in his work, he gets a disabled person to play the role (such as the Down’s Syndrome actor from Extras who did indeed have Down’s). He says that Derek is based on people you meet who are on the margins of society; nerds, loners and under achievers. Nicky Clark, a disability rights campaigner who criticised Gervais for using the word mong has watched Derek’s pilot episode and stated that “instead of it being a mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man, it’s the story that really need to be told at the moment.” She said she both laughed and cried, seeing no cruelty in the show’s premiere episode.
Chris Harvey writes that “in Derek, Gervais seems to have found a character that he relates to deeply. When Derek found a worm, tried to give it a drink in the pond in the garden of the nursing home, and wondered, in his child-like speech: “Is that its head? I give it both ends,” it simply didn’t come across as mocking. It was a way of looking at the world that was both joyful and touching. And, when Derek’s favourite resident Joan fell asleep, and he touched her curls gently: “I likes her hair, it’s fluffy,” you could almost feel the perm bounce against your fingers.” He ends his article by saying that “Derek was, at its heart, nothing if not kind.”
That kindness is what viewers should come away with after watching Derek, and is what I hope will shine through once the series is completed and hits the airwaves. Gervais can be offensive, sure, but only if you’re giving him nothing more than a glance or only focusing on the cover of the book without taking a minute to read any of the pages. Simply looking at a photo of Gervais portraying Derek can make one think he’s being cruel, but watching the episode and learning the story puts that assumption to rest. Derek is brilliantly funny and deeply touching. Adding Pilkington to the mix brings in a camaraderie between he and Gervais that can’t be faked; it’s quite similar to how they interact on The Ricky Gervais Show and allows Pilkington to seamlessly slip into the role of Dougie. Overall, I believe Gervais has struck gold with this new series and I hope it finds incredible success and leaves the critics with egg on their faces.