I expected Derek to be a total car crash of a project, all from a man who spent weeks on Twitter insisting ‘mong’ does not refer to the disabled. Ricky Gervais did not deliver an offensive show, but it did confirm all the absolute worst aspects of his post-Office career. (SPOILERS BELOW)
Watching the final scenes of Derek made me suddenly realise why Gervais is so massively popular in America. He takes emotional manipulation of an audience to new unheard of levels. At the death of care home resident Joan, we had the full barrage of heavy-handed clichés – tinkly sad piano music, our ‘hero’ weeping and going back over and over again on all the wonderful, moving moments they had shared, while the edit kept cutting to him speaking to the corpse and placing her now lifeless hand upon his head. All of it so desperately wanted to bring a tear to your eye I expected the scent of freshly-chopped onions to start wafting from the television.
Compare, if you will, to the magnificent Rev. There the death of a care home resident was treated with total class and respect for its audience. They were not spoon-fed the expected responses. Reverend Adam Smallbone instead accepted the news in rather stunned silence, both in character and in soundtrack for those of us at home. He soldiered on with the work at hand until at the most inappropriate moment the grief, regret and guilt at not saying goodbye leaked out in a genuinely moving breakdown. Again, no tinkly piano required and only a few words spent on what he was feeling, because the performance said it all. The audience was allowed to fill in the gaps without everything being dictated to us.
This brings us to another point: Gervais can’t act. He can a bit and he’s shown more than enough times (The Office, Extras, Derek, The Invention of Lying) that he squeezes out the tears at the drop of a hat, but when it comes to playing anyone remotely different to himself, it falls apart. His attempts at slapstick in Derek were embarrassing, as the slips were so clearly sign-posted even Derek himself would’ve seen them coming a mile away.
But why was he afflicted with learning difficulties anyway? Does one need to have a disability to be kind and gentle? The nurse character played with great emotional fragility by Kerry Godliman was far more empathetic without requiring exaggerated tics or a jutting out jaw. Gervais compared Derek’s ‘stupidity’ to Baldrick (Blackadder) and Father Dougal (Father Ted), but completely misses the point that these were never meant to be realistic characters. Their ignorance was so ludicrous that it could only exist in a sitcom world. Derek tries to place us in a real world and it cannot be the same.
Of course, everyone expected it to be a totally offensive portrayal of a man with at best learning difficulties and at worst Down syndrome. This was his own fault after Gervais posted a series of pictures on Twitter of him pulling what he called “a mong face.” He insisted the word no longer meant DS and the new generation did not associate it with disability, instead referring to ‘an idiot.’ So when the teenage girls in the pub loudly mocked Derek, why did they use terms like ‘granddad,’ ‘paedophile’ and point out his coat and plastic bag? We all know full well what word these girls really would’ve used when seeing Derek: ‘Mong.’
It would’ve shown great intelligence and class to include that term in this scene, where Gervais could show once and for all that the term is deeply hurtful and offensive, something his many Twitter followers really don’t seem to have grasped. It would have been a fitting conclusion to the ‘mong-gate’ saga and a reason for Derek to exist. As things stand, I can’t see the point in this show at all.