A curious thing happened in journalism recently. Ricky Gervais’ pilot episode of Derek, the comic drama aired on April 12th, had a subject deemed so taboo among many pseudo-liberals that such critics deemed it decent, in fact necessary, to review and condemn the feature even before its début. Not for the quality, but for the effect such heinous comedy will have on us, the impressionable viewers.
The subject was a parochial old soul named Derek, perhaps Gervais’ most genial creation thus far. To find the critics, type “Ricky + Derek” into the Guardian website search bar and randomly select any article. But kidding aside, journalist Tanya Gold and comedian Stewart Lee did their paper a disservice with their moralistic critiques of the non-intellectual Derek character. Apparently, the character is so atypical from the usual churn of flat TV characters that we should presume he simply must have Down’s syndrome. Gervais claims otherwise; that’s the only testimony worth taking seriously. Sorry Stewart Lee – I like you usually.
To follow the logic of these people one must (a) define and diagnose the abnormality, even in fictional characters (b) allow unqualified people to simply assume it is Down’s syndrome, autism or Asperger’s syndrome (rather than harmless eccentricity) to give the impression they have a clue (c) proceed to seclude them from comedy shows lest they “offend” those who cannot tell apart the subject from the target of a comedy.
A recent example of this process in action was Tanya Gold’s article, which has no real focused argument but instead contains ramblings about Ricky Gervais’ alleged culturally criminal actions. His charges against the disabled include: casting a dwarf in Life’s Too Short (the only “offence” of that series being its mediocrity), Gervais’ appearance in an advert promoting the rights of the disabled (apparently there isn’t room for irony in performance as stupid people can’t tell the difference), his satire of Susan Boyle (…who isn’t actually disabled) and, lately, Derek and his supposed learning difficulties. This dodgy dossier of evidence is all Tanya Gold required to make the insane claim that Ricky Gervais’ quaintly touching comic drama is contributing to the “… woeful times for the disabled in Britain.” Such attitudes are not rare; this article is typical of a wave of groupthink misidentified as “liberal”.
Likewise, in each of his recent projects, Gervais has routinely waded through criticism completely unrelated to his discipline; in a recent example, the Daily Mail writer Christopher Stevens excuses his ill-judgements under the guise of himself being the father of an autistic 15-year-old. In describing Derek he uses three extreme adjectives to deliver his point in a fashion typical of the Daily Mail: “… the most vile, cynical, dishonest piece of television I’ve ever seen.” Likewise, if such words do not suffice, he decides Derek is so offensive it requires two made-up words to categorize it: “disablism” and “handicaphobia.” Yes, it is so offensive that the current English lexicon cannot express the hate espoused by Gervais.
Despite the writer’s difficult circumstances, his bigotry remains indefensible when his insulting claims are devoid of evidence. It is the bandwagon mentality in motion, fake and forced anger galore and a hardened distrust of all things individual. They saw the show they wanted to see to voice their prejudice. They get their buzz from feeling just.
To repeat, Derek may not be disabled. In fact, he presents himself as very able; he is playful, talkative, kind, self-aware, selfless and useful. It begs the question: where goes the line that separates eccentricity from genuine mental difficulties? I don’t know, but I reckon Derek (and those similar) falls on the side defined by honest virtues, ignorance of societal fashions and a realisation that: “… it is more important to be kind than clever or good-looking.” Of course, this description can be applied to either side of the line; Derek, however, is only considered mentally incapacitated by the bullies themselves or those that presume people like him will have bullies. To the rest of us, he’s a character worth getting to know rather than one to be immediately labelled with a useless diagnosis.
Furthermore, Gervais’ critics don’t seem offended by the portrayal of Derek within the pilot. They seem offended by the “nerve” Gervais shows by even daring to portray a character too different from him. Stevens, Gold and Lee are offended by the very presence of the Derek character in fiction. It must be tiresome to draw cynical conclusions from innocent sitcoms; nearly as tiresome as it is for us to hear such resultant smug whinging.
We sceptics – not cynics – however, take sides with the character of Hannah: a virtuous but unfulfilled character seeking a love life who finds Derek funny similar to the way the audience does. We find his antics amusing because they seem completely uncompromised by society’s expectations, and as such we admire him.
The mindset of the aforementioned journalists supposes the audience will assume that those with some social abnormalities are now “fair game” to torment – a condescending tone towards all of the audience, who are considered malicious, and those like Derek, who become presented as defenceless and, dare I say, Ricky Gervais, whom these people assume is morally unsound (when he is actually morally and artistically principled).
Such torrents of righteousness only detract from adult debate about the treatment of the disabled in our society. Those who lapse into taking offense at sitcoms, tweets or flippant comments must do a better job of convincing their audience that political correction is the necessary course of action. Our sympathy can no longer lie with those who become offended but whoever is morally and artistically sound – even if they are antagonistic.