It is with disappointment that I heard that the original Netflix production Derek is starting its second season.
The show is written and produced by Ricky Gervais, a man I have, up this point, found to be funny. This show is a huge misstep. Derek is a caretaker of sorts in a senior citizens’ home. At no time is it overtly presented that Derek is developmentally delayed, but he obviously is, and embodies all of the worst, and most offensive, stereotypes that, sadly, are often associated with the developmentally delayed:
He walks about with his mouth open and his jaw set at a bizarre angle in what I assume is supposed to demonstrate some facial deformity.
His hair is unwashed, greasy, and cut in a fashion that could only be acquired through a home barber kit.
His clothes are ill fitting, out of date, and drab, and he wears his pants far too high.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I work in group home for handicapped adults, so I can speak with some experience about why the portrayal of Derek is so misguided. First and foremost is the idea that someone with a developmental disability can’t desire to look their best–that somehow an interest in hygiene and fashion doesn’t not exist in this population. I can assure you that it does. Interest in clothing, hair styles, cologne, perfume, body image, and behaviour that at times might seem shallow or vacuous as it focuses on the surface is very much alive and well in the population of the developmentally delayed as it is in any other segment of “normal” society. And this is fantastic. This is normalization, something talked about and strived for on a daily basis among people who work in the field. The idea that someone who has a developmental disability has no concern for their appearance, how they smell, weight gain, and how others perceive them is prejudice in its purest form.
His co-worker and best friend is the maintenance man and bus driver. When we first meet him, Derek asks him as he passes by in front of the camera if he’d like to take part in the show. The maintenance man launches into an indictment of his own life, saying how ashamed he is to look the way he does, make the kind of money he makes, and then, most embarrassingly of all, that he works in a home for seniors. An insinuation here is that because Derek’s co-worker is not developmentally delayed, he can have the good sense to be ashamed of who he is and what he does. He is mean, at one point telling the camera that the residents just fill their rooms with shit and they are given too much space. He throws a painting in the garbage instead of repairing it for a resident. Later in the show, in a feeble attempt at redemption, he does repair the keepsake and hangs it on the wall. But this does not redeem his original attitude. But it isn’t all bad, as he explains; he can get things like his eyeglasses off the residents who die. Jesus wept.
Derek’s other friend and co-worker continually scratches at the front of his pants because he has a fungus on his crotch. And he collects autographs. Enough said.
But perhaps saddest of all in this “comedy” is that elderly people are treated as props, the butt of jokes that fail, and stereotypes (an old person forgets someone’s name! Oh my god that is funny! I think I just shit my pants!), and they are, at least in the episode I watched, the source of all things gross and humiliating. The only use the residents seem to have is as bait to attract family members to visit and hopefully provide a dating pool for the employees.
I thought the British Office was brilliant, and I loved Life’s Too Short, the show Gervais produced for HBO. I do understand why, as an artist, he wants to attempt the new and not merely repeat what has worked in the past. But in this particular effort he has failed. Derek is not funny; the characters are insultingly simplistic. What Gervais has done is create a theatre of cruelty, not only for the hateful portrayal of the vulnerable, but for the viewer at home who had high hopes.
If you have an interest in seeing a depiction of the developmentally delayed that is funny, charming, a little edgy, and has heart, I recommend The Ringer, starring Johnny Knoxville and featuring actual people with developmental disabilities. That’s right, a movie starring Johnny Knoxville is absolutely the best, and most accurate, depiction of a culture few people have access to. You see fully formed individuals who are mouthy, sharp, egotistical, and sarcastic, as well as sensitive, caring, and sophisticated, like the developmentally delayed people who are my clients and friends. This movie will definitely give you a far better and much funnier idea of this segment of society than Derek could ever hope to do.