“If I am tistic [sic], will I die? …Will I have to go into hospital and do experiments on me? [sic] …So will it change me in any way? Will I be the same person?”
“Don’t worry about it then.”
The above quote is taken from a scene in Ricky Gervais’ new show, Derek. The scene is not designed to be funny, it’s not trying to mock the disabled, but what it is, is one of the most powerful and thoughtful pieces of television I have seen in a very long time.
If you haven’t seen Derek, you’ll probably at least have seen or heard some of the controversy around it; controversy usually comes with anything Gervais does. (The programme revolves around retirement home worker, Derek, his friends and co-workers, and the residents of the home.)
Some critics have called Derek exploitive, claiming it makes fun of the elderly and the disabled; I have no idea what programme they’ve been watching, but it’s certainly not this one.
From the offset, Gervais uses his latest show to confront our societal issues with dealing with mental health and the elderly, head on. The programme lays heavy emphasis on the neglectful or disrespectful way we treat the elderly, but Gervais isn’t accusing us of not caring, he acknowledges and highlights the simple truth that, most of us, are simply afraid of growing old, and we hide away those who remind us of that miserable eventuality.
But more than that, Gervais tries to remind the viewer that the elderly are people too, who were once young like us, and lived lives full of excitement and adventure like us, and who had dreams, just like us. Gervais uses sweet and often emotional interactions between the staff and the residents of the home, to do this, as well as occasionally using old photographs and footage to offer a glimpse into the lives of the residents in the younger days.
The show also tackles any stigmas the viewer may have of the people who work in retirement homes. In episode four, a woman who Hannah (one of the staff) went to school with comes to put her mother in the home. The woman is successful, with a good job, but is obnoxious and looks down her nose at Hannah, who dropped out of school. The woman is a representation of those of us who may consider ourselves better than other people simply because we have achieved more academically.
In a yet another extremely moving scene, Douglas, the home’s handy-man, explains that Hannah has never had time to focus on achieving something for herself, because she has devoted her life to caring for others. It’s a beautiful scene that reminds the viewer there are much more important qualities to judge someone by, than their education.
The show really nails the equilibrium between heart-warming and sad, between funny and serious. Derek is neither offensive nor insincere. It’s a touching, emotional, starkly, and sometimes bleakly, honest, look at societies’ attitudes towards the elderly and mentally disabled.
Going back to that initial quote; the reason that line stood out to me, above all others, in a fantastically written programme, is that it’s so simple, but so thoughtful, and so effective. Derek, in all his naïvety and his innocence, is unaware that he’s any different to everyone around him.
Derek doesn’t judge anyone, himself or others, by what they look like, their age, or whether they have a mental illness or not, but by who they are. This one quote, I felt summed up everything about Derek, the character and the programme, and really gives the viewer something to think about.
Consider this: an estimated one in four people in the UK will suffer from some form of mental illness at some stage in their life. One in four. That’s a lot of people, yet we are still so awkward about mental health. We simply don’t know how to deal with it.
When someone finds out you have a mental illness, it changes the way they see you; you’re not a person like them anymore, you’re a disorder. And that needs to change.
I think we all need to take a leaf out of Derek’s book, and start judging people for who they are, not by what we label them.
Till next time, thanks for reading, whoever you are.