By Bill Coffin
I recently watched Derek, a six-episode television series that aired on BBC 4 earlier this year and will soon be available for streaming on Netflix. It is the story of a mentally challenged man who works in a nursing home called Broad Hill, somewhere in England. The show is written and directed by the controversial British comedian Ricky Gervais, who also plays the titular character. Gervais took a great deal of flak from his countrymen when news of the series first made the rounds, for many writers presumed that Gervais—known for being fearless about the subjects he treats comedically—was using the series to poke fun at the mentally disabled. He wasn’t. (It does contain some coarse humor at times, though.)
Derek is a heartfelt show that manages to craft some really good comedy without belittling anybody, an especially laudable act of emotional engineering in an age of relentless irony, cynicism and snark. But the show also takes a more serious turn (certainly more so than The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short or An Idiot Abroad, the other series for which Gervais is known) in how it looks at the elderly, especially those resigned to live out their final days in an elder care home. Broad Hill is a nice enough place in that it tries to provide people with the most comfort it can with meager resources. Its staff—and Derek in particular—genuinely cares about making people happy and looking after those who have grown too old or weak to care for themselves. But it also shows how often the elderly are cast aside by ungrateful children too selfish to be bothered to care for the very people who gave them life.
Often times, caring for the elderly is ridiculed, especially by the young. Old people are weird. They smell funny. They are forgetful or easily distracted. But these are all the thoughts of people too young and too self-centered to realize that if we are lucky, we might all grow so old one day. And, that the care we give to those who need it now will hopefully be the care we receive ourselves one day far in the future, when most of our friends and loved ones have gone before us, when our bodies simply no longer act as we would like them to, and when all we really want is to meet our end with dignity and without pain.
Derek makes a strong case for how society owes it to itself to provide care for the elderly if they cannot care for themselves. And while that’s a point I agree with, not everybody does, and I get that, too. Those who can provide for themselves have an obligation to do so. Those who can provide for their families should not hesitate on that, either. After all, if we can’t be there for those who raised us and for those who have loved us most, what good are we? If we have the resources to care for our own, and yet we choose not to, what does that say about us?
I hear of how hard it is to sell products such as long-term care and financial planning tools that provide a steady income for life. Sometimes people can’t get these things for themselves, and that is sad, indeed. It’s even sadder if we can’t expect our sons and daughters to do it for us if need be, though. In fact, I can’t think of anything more sad than that.
In the final episode of Derek, one of the show’s most reprehensible characters is asked about the meaning of life, and he reflects on his own poor choices and personal failings. He notes that Derek has taken the only shortcut in life worth taking—being kind. As he tells us this in the form of a voiceover, we see Derek commit an act of kindness that will bring tears to anyone’s eyes. (It certainly did to mine.) And it made me think, once again, that we have so many tools with which to fend for ourselves financially. We really to have an obligation to use them on behalf of those we love most. Maybe even on those we don’t love so well, too.