I was shocked to hear this morning that Ricky Gervais was nominated for an Emmy. The role: His cynical portrayal of Derek, a 50-year-old mentally retarded man who works in a nursing home and is so sweet, childlike and innocent that he is adored by residents and staff alike.
“Gag me with a spoon,” as we used to say when we were kids.
I’d heard about this show – the only sitcom that takes place in a nursing home; it was actually getting some positive mentions here and there for its honest portrayal of aging. Then I watched it.
If this show is sympathetic to old people, I’d hate to see a show that isn’t.
Far from being an honest portrayal, “Derek” is an ageist fantasy of life in a nursing home, conjured by a middle-aged comedian who has little respect for or understanding of old people. The home’s residents are portrayed sitting around vacantly, silently gazing off into the distance, doing nothing much but playing the occasional card game and in the process getting scammed by a volunteer who’s doing community service for criminal activity.
The residents are just foils for Derek and his buddies, both losers: Jack, the handyman and Kev, a grossly offensive homeless guy who doesn’t work at the nursing home but hangs out with Derek and Jack because he has nowhere else to go. Just look at Kev, who’s supposed to be funny but is smelly, sex-obsessed, talks constantly about his private parts and exhibits behavior so repellent that he gets in bed naked with residents and shits in his pants. I kid you not.
Gervais, who’s best known for his cutting—though very funny—stand-up comedy persona (and his equally cutting role in the British version of “The Office,”) actually had an opportunity with “Derek” to portray nursing home residents as human beings, an opportunity that he lost because apparently he was too focused on showing the world that he can play against type; ie: be sweet. In fact the “mentally challenged” Derek he plays, a shambling, hunched over moron with a jutting lower jaw, looks more like Igor in Frankenstein than a developmentally disabled person. Like the nursing home residents Gervais has imagined – stereotypes of old people without stories or plotlines or dialog – Derek is a caricature, not a real human being.
And what about the show’s other main character, Hannah, the saintly nursing home manager? She talks a lot about how much she really cares for the residents, but she makes no effort to relieve the unrelenting boredom of their lives. They have little autonomy and no stimulating activities. In fact, “Derek” portrays the kind of uncaring nursing home that plunks residents in chairs with nothing to do but wait for death.
Gervais is up against some very heavy hitters in his category at the Emmys this year, so he probably won’t win, which is a good thing. I will have to wait for a genuinely funny show about a nursing home that tells it like it is without phony sentimentality, with portrayals of residents who are real people with real problems, not stereotypical codgers. I can imagine it being a lot funnier than “Derek,” since life in nursing homes is a natural for black humor about the big D’s: dementia and dying, subjects that TV usually avoids like the plague. I’m writing and casting it in my head already.