Ricky Gervais’s Derek Noakes is a celebrity-obsessed care worker at an old folks’ home, who is, let’s say, a little off. The character met with a good deal of controversy when the pilot episode of Derek first premiered in the United Kingdom back in April 2012, as many critics and viewers thought that Derek was a terribly offensive portrayal of a mentally challenged man. Unsurprisingly, Gervais disagreed. So, with the Derek pilot and and six follow-up episodes set for release on Netflix less than twelve hours from now, we thought we’d look back at the debate generated by the show.
The seeds of the controversy were sown a couple of years beforehand, with Gervais’s borderline obsession with using the word mong, which is short for mongoloid and a derogatory term for people with Down’s syndrome. Beyond using it on Twitter, it was a centerpiece of this 2010 stand-up bit:
Eventually, when it was announced in late 2011 that Gervais was filming a pilot based on the Derek character he had been doing as early as the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, the critics were primed. The most scathing argument came from fellow comedian Stewart Lee, who satirically took down the idea that making fun of the mentally handicapped is “brave.” He wrote in the Guardian:
“It would, doubtless, be brave for Gervais to pursue his Derek Noakes sitcom. It would be braver for him to staple his penis to a wolf. And braver still for him to run into a threshing machine, pushing children in wheelchairs in before him. But watching Gervais’s Derek Noakes on YouTube, I imagined feral children trailing real Dereks around supermarkets, chanting ‘Derek Derek’, as they doubtless would were the series to be made, and wondered if, sometimes, discretion is not the better part of valour.”
However, it was when the pilot premiered in April 2012 that the debate reached its peak. Author Christopher Stevens, who is a father of an autistic son, wrote in the Daily Mail, “It goes deeper than sneering, and it’s more dangerous than plain bullying. It’s akin to racism, or homophobia, but it isn’t either of those. There’s no word for it.” Adding that Gervais’s performance was akin to a “schoolboy bully, showing off to his friends by pretending to be a ‘spazz,’ combing his hair forward and sticking his lower jaw out.”
Tanya Gold, writing for the Guardian, took on the argument that the show is not making fun of the disabled but actually satirizing how our culture treats them. “I am losing patience with this argument, which feels more like lazy cruelty than satire.” She continued, “If Gervais were really concerned with the abuse the disabled suffer, there are many things he could do. Instead, he feeds bigots their lines.”
Likely expecting fallout, Gervais was quick to defend the show. In an interview with disability rights activist Nicky Clark, Gervais explained that Derek is not disabled, and as the creator of the character, he’d know. “A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong,” he said. He argued that Derek might not be “the smartest tool in the box but he’s cleverer than Father Dougal, and not as different as Mr. Bean.”
He continued, “He’s based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, under achievers.” Gervais took this a step further, talking with the Telegraph, “And anyway, even if he is, what’s wrong with such a positive role model?
You can judge for yourself exactly what’s wrong, if anything, tomorrow.