Friday, 13 April 2012

Ricky Gervais - Derek: disablist or defensible? PART ONE

A Gervais "controversy scandal" has become as predictable as the spinning of the Earth itself. Every year the winter ends, the harvest begins, the sun rises and sets in the sky and Ricky Gervais will do or say something that someone, somewhere doesn't like. This year's Gervais scandal is the flashy, more wealthy older brother of last year's "Mongate", and comes in the form of his new one-off comedy drama Derek. The show's namesake is, how shall we say it, on the Father Dougal end of the comedy character scale. With arguments already flying out of blogs across the internet before the show has even aired, I thought I'd take some time to look at the merits of the show and try and decipher whether I should be upset about it or not.

I'll start off by saying that disability is very much a personal issue for me (as I have a disabled close family member), and that I was thoroughly against Gervais throughout "Mongate". I could refute his arguments that the word has changed meaning through first-hand experience, and I completely disagree with the arguments his fans then took and ran with that ranged from "FREEDOM OF SPEECH!!!" to "YOURE A MISERABLE MONG LIGHTEN UP". However I feel that with Derek it's a slightly harder fence to jump off.

If you're going to write a character in a comedy that has the possibility to offend, it's highly important that you characterise that individual and give them enough context that the audience isn't too shocked or surprised by their actions. It's why nobody was up in arms about the boys in The Inbetweeners calling each other mongs. They're 16 or 17 year old boys, they're immature and it's just a reality of life that boys like them do use those words. However if Father Ted Crilly were to call Dougal a mong, people would complain because it's not in character. Nobody sensible ever said during the last scandal and during this one that you aren't allowed to use those words, just that you should think twice about your reasons for using them. Are you just using them to shock? Are you getting laughs because it's an appropriate and extreme thing for a character to do, or just because disabled people look different?

If Derek gets it right, then nobody should be up in arms at all. The character itself has been declared simply eccentric and not at all disabled by it's creator ,"If I say I don't mean him to be disabled then that's it. A fictional doctor can't come along and prove me wrong.", and he has also drawn comparisons to Father Dougal Maguire. It is absolutely foolish to make any assumptions about the show until it has been aired. If delivered in a way that plays with our heartstrings and shows that Derek is as capable of achieving his goals as any other person (as many disabled people are in real life), it could be taboo-breaking and genre-bending. My confidence in Gervais after the "mong" thing is at an all time low, but I know that he has written both tasteful and funny disabled characters in the past.

I'm going to cut this short now. I wrote the above four paragraphs last night at 6pm, and as the show has now aired I can take some time to watch, deconstruct and really get to the bones of the show. I have both high and low expectations. I know that Gervais is capable of tactful comedy, but I've also seen he can have a bit of a spiteful streak. I just hope Derek falls into the former.

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