The cast of Derek, from left to right: Kev (David Earl), Hannah (Kerry Godliman), Derek (Ricky Gervais), Vicky (Holli Dempsey), Dougie (Karl Pilkington). Photo: Netflix/Channel 4
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Fresh from baiting the disabled, Ricky Gervais’s “Derek” takes aim at the elderly

Ricky Gervais wrote Derek, and he’s decided it’s not offensive – so it can’t be, can it?

I liked The Office. It’s law you say that before you criticise Ricky Gervais. Then you have to agree that he was jolly decent to eventually apologise for his ignorance of disableist language. Yep, with a bucket of caveats, I suppose he was.

Still, I came to Derek pre-annoyed. I’m aware I could have switched over, but you can’t comment on the emperor’s new clothes if you don’t go to the parade. And yes, I went to the parade knowing he was naked. But like a driver slowing down at the scene of an accident, I came to gawk.

The subjective stuff is subjective. No point saying it wasn’t funny when to some it clearly was. No point saying it was badly acted and written, poorly realised or wasn’t sad, when people took to Twitter in their hordes to point at their tears. That I remained dry-eyed even though I’m as open to manipulation as the next emotionally-labile ninny, is probably my failing. Maybe I was too cross to cry. That’ll explain it.

My pre-annoyance started with Gervais’s appearance on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man sofa. The publicity still for the show he chose (I say “he chose”, I mean “the Gervais team chose”, I suppose) was of the sleazy character Kev (actor David Earl) lying on the floor to get a better view up the skirt of an elderly woman doing yoga. The old money shot. Imagine the horrors of elderly fanny. I bet that thought made you shudder – Gervais certainly hopes so, because that’s the point of it. Old people’s bits are physically repellent aren’t they, and the idea of a younger man getting some kind of kick out of peering at them, that’s BOUNDARY PUSHING. But funny, yeah? Really funny? Oh, and the jokes on HIM, don’t you get it? Oh yeah. I get it.

I moved into full annoyance in episode one of this second series. Derek is set in an old people’s home, and it’s shot for some unexplained reason in Gervais’ preferred mockumentary style, so there’s lots of knowing looks to camera. The “knowing” extends to some of the most cynical product placement I’ve seen on TV – only the product is Gervais himself. Derek is being shown how to use Twitter, of all things, and how to do a hashtag, as if. The audience is given clear instructions on the right hashtag to use (I’m not repeating it here, I can’t quite bring myself to) and WOW! as Derek tweets, there it is! On actual Twitter! Fictional TV meets social media in real time; seems we are all about pushing boundaries tonight. And Gervais does like to trend on Twitter. Maybe he needs the approval.

Because of its setting, there’s obviously lots of old people around, mostly as silent props. Chair fillers. The show is not about them, it’s about the people serving them, so if they seem to be secondary characters, it’s because they are. It’s when they dare to speak where it all gets a bit, shall we say, tricky. Their roles fall into a couple of categories. They might get you all teared up as they sing over-sentimentalised Hallmark-style songs. (Old people and their tragic lives make me cry.) Or they might have to sit unflinching, not reacting as pervy Kev yells “labia” at them, in a kind of twisted version of the game where if you laugh, you’re out. (Old people will tolerate anything because they don’t really get it.) Or if they’re really lucky, as happened this week, a character will get to play flirty with a younger man, much to the horror of Gervais and his crew. If you’re in any doubt that this is meant to be the reaction, witness the way the camera stares. Did she just say that? it asks. The idea that old people might be sexual with each other is barely tolerable. Sexual with “us”? Gross.

Now, I know that if I were to so much as raise an eyebrow at my partner in front of teenagers, it would make them lose their lunch. But Gervais is not a teenager, he’s 25 days younger than me, as it happens. Old enough to have developed empathy. Old enough to know that you don’t lose your personality with age, you don’t become an asinine, empty vessel. You still have all the feelings. Yes, all. Old enough to have realised a slightly more rounded view of human experience; old enough not to point and go “eurgh”. It’s puerile and exploitative. It’s time to accept that you and me, Ricky, we’re getting old. I don’t know about you, but I’m assuming that when I’m an octogenarian, bollocks will still be one of my favourite expletives.

One approach here is an appeal to decency. “Imagine if that was your mum or grandma”, as if personalising a problem is the only way someone can recognise it. It’s not an approach I’ve generally got much time for – but hey, turns out if it that was my mother in the yoga pose, I’d be incandescent. Not because she’s incapable of standing up for herself, but because of all that’s implied. The gaze, the shuddering crudity, the derogatory humour of abhorrence, all at her expense. But Gervais is a slippery sod so he already crafted a generic get-out: I am the writer, and I decided it’s not offensive, so it’s not. But that’s bollocks. Good word, isn’t it? Useful.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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