An avid consumer of media, I’ve always had a particularly passionate love affair with television, and the little window of escapism it offers to an otherwise drab existence. The bright colors, the beautiful people, the drama, the chaos, the neatly-packaged resolutions. It was all so much more appealing than my lame little suburban life in Australia. I was intoxicated with Hollywood glitz and glamour, and coveted the lives of my television counterparts.
Of course, my viewing habits have matured with age, and these days I find myself less drawn to glossy melodramas and inclined towards more substantial viewing (that being said, I did waste five embarrassingly recent years of my life on ‘Pretty Little Liars‘, captivated by the endless riddle of A’s identity and the attractiveness of the leading ladies, all the while painfully aware of how ludicrous the show actually is).
My quest for enlightenment and a life of meaning is often thwarted by a tendency towards shallow frivolity, and evidence of this is littered throughout my Netflix watchlist.
Television serves many purposes to many people- at its worse, it can be a mind-numbing, soul-sucking agent of dribble, used for biased agendas, exploitation, promoting shitty ideals and reinforcing negative beliefs onto the spongy brains of the uninformed. At best, it can be absolutely life-affirming. It can bring around a new way of thinking by shining a light on an issue or concept you had not previously encountered. It can inspire the biggest of belly laughs and move you to tears. The greatest example of this kind of show that I’ve come across is Ricky Gervais’s Derek.
I initially avoided this show based on the mistaken belief that it was, essentially, a piss-take on disabled and ederly folk. I was familiar with some of Gervais’s work but was unaware of his personal status as a prolific atheist, animal rights activist and humanitarian. I therefore had no reason to believe him above portraying a disabled character for a few cheap lols. Thankfully, after hearing a coworker constantly gush about the show and insist I give it a chance, I discovered I was completely wrong, and fell head over heels for this incredible character.
For those who have yet to experience the magic of Derek, the basic premise is this; a middle aged man with undisclosed learning difficulties, lives in an aged care home, where he helps out with the general running of the place, but mostly provides support and love to the other residents and workers. The home is run by the huge-hearted Hannah, who is a living lesson in selflessness.
The hilarious Karl Pilkington costars in the first season as Dougie, the maintenance guy, who is basically just Karl with a bald-cap and even greater sense of disillusionment ( “Life is pain. From the moment your head pops out someone gives you a slap.”)
Rounding out the main cast is, Kevin the repulsive, drunken cretin who is spared from homelessness only by Derek’s insistence that he be allowed to stay at the aged care home, and Vicki, the teenage kleptomaniac who is forced to volunteer at the home as a part of a community service sentence. It all seems reasonably light-hearted, and is quietly hilarious from the get-go.
We are drawn to this motley crew of underdogs and we find ourselves wincing with embarrassment and giggling uncontrollably at the situations they find themselves in.
But a few episodes in, we discover that this is much more than just a clever mockumentary, this is actually a series with substance, and at its core a poignant message that should not be ignored.
The key to Derek’s appeal as a character is his simplicity. He knows he’s a bit different but it doesn’t matter. One of my favorite moments is from season one, when a council inspector enquires as to whether Derek is handicapped and would consider being tested for autism. “If I am ’tistic,” Derek responds, “will I die?” Hannah assures him no, he won’t die. “Will I change in any way? Or will I be the same person?” He’s told yes, he’ll still be the same and no, he won’t die. “Well, don’t worry about it then,” he says nonchalantly. Case closed.
In another scene he addresses his ‘low intellect’ while talking about his late mother and the things she taught him. “She told me that kindness is magic. I’m not handsome or clever. But I am kind.”
And he is, always, to a fault. To everyone, deserving or not, no matter how they respond in turn. He’s kind in situations that I could never be kind in, to people I could never be kind to. And as result, things change. People change. Kindness changes them.
They become kinder people in return, they spread it around. I feel like this is a universal truth that we all understand at a fundamental level, but collectively, as a species, have sort of forgotten about. It took Derek to remind me. I would watch, tears streaming, lump in my throat, and be like, ‘oh, yeah’.
They should be teaching it at schools. Sure, the humor is often R-Rated and Kev especially is offensive as fuck, but the occasional crudeness of the comedy provides the perfect balance to Derek’s earnestness. It makes the sincerity palatable, rather than shoving it down your throat like an after-school special.
I can’t speak highly enough of this show. I’ve never wanted kids but I love Derek so much I’m almost tempted to have them, just so that I can make them watch it.
Kev’s constant vulgarity is beset by occasional moments of brilliance – who knew that a character best known for lines such as “8 ounces of pure blood sausage coming atcha!” would also be capable of such insights as, “I’m a coward, a failure I guess. But I’m not a failure because I didn’t succeed- I’m a failure because I didn’t try.”
This theme, suggesting the deep-down goodness of everyone, is prevalent throughout the entire show. We witness it in the evolution of Vicki’s character from the first to second seasons. I initially thought she was a bit of a write-off, a useless ‘thot’ there to provide a bit of comic relief with her millenial-style airheadedness, as evidenced in her early exchanges with Hannah: “So what do you wanna do for a living?”
“Oh, you know, Kardashians n’ that.”
And that’s the whole point, it’s so easy to write people off as a losers, unworthy of our time, we all do it. But after Vicki finds herself bonding with the residents and Hannah gives her 100% on her volunteer evaluation form, we see a different girl begin to bloom (“I’ve never got 100% on anything before,” she says tearfully). Hannah’s relentless kindness and belief in Vicki changes her, gives her the ability to believe in herself and quietly become a better person.
We are forced to face our own mortality through watching the elderly residents of Broad Hill on their march towards death, and heartened by the staff’s dedication to giving them as comfortable and dignified exit as possible. We feel a stab of shame as Hannah laments their plight, “Just because they’re old, just because they’re poor, they’re forgotten about,” and it breaks our hearts a little because we know someday we’ll be old and forgotten, and we vow to be more thoughtful towards the ederly in our lives and appreciative of our relative health and youth.
There’s a thousand other examples of unexpected kindness and life lessons in this show, my favorite involving Kev and a tin-can dog (I challenge you to watch that episode without bawling), but I don’t want to spoil everything for the unacquainted. Suffice it to say that every single character will surprise and move you in one way or another, and the underlying message always prevails: kindness is magic.
There is really nothing more important you can do with your life than to be kind. Or, to quote Derek (who himself was quoting a Chinese proverb):
“If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap. If you want to be a happy for a day, go fishing. If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime- help other people.” And if you want to be reminded on how to be a good person- do us all a favor and watch Derek.