Eat: Blueberry and banana bran muffin. Bon Appetit tells me they’re healthy, but I put butter on it, so I think it just comes out to a “normal” muffin. Recipe tomorrow.
Drink: Coffee. Single origin from Colombia, brewed in a Chemex.
Read Watch: This weekend I’ve been watching Derek, Ricky Gervais’s made-for-Netflix tv show. Gervais, who also wrote and directed the show, plays a mentally challenged man (a local politician suggests that he’s autistic in one episode, but we never learn if he has a disability and if so, what it is) who works at a small retirement home. His friends are Hannah, the manager; Dougie, the handyman; and Kevin, the lecherous delinquent. Every episode centers on the idea that Derek is the heart and soul of the retirement home.
Though known for his comedy, Gervais has created a show that appears to be sincerity itself (less a few comedic interludes, mostly provided by Kevin’s lewdness). In fact, the show comes off as so earnest that I had to look up reviews just to be sure that the whole thing wasn’t operating on some ridiculous meta-ironic level. Characters extoll Derek’s virtues repeatedly and without prompting (the show is shot in mockumentary style, a la Gervais’s original creation, The Office); the soundtrack is beyond saccharine; “good” triumphs over “evil” just a little too easily. In the second episode, the home faces closure due to budget cuts, but the problem is never resolved beyond reassuring the show’s audience that the home is worthwhile, and the issue disappears. In another episode, a recalcitrant teen is sent to the home for community service hours and is quickly transformed from a moody, vapid punk into a caring young woman so touched by her experience that she wants to keep coming to the home as a volunteer (a very similar plot line occurs with a male character several episodes later). Challenges are always solved on the first try with a little kindness, and there is a conspicuous lack of larger story arcs or character development.
But for all these problems, I think the real difficulty in watching the show is that we simply aren’t used to facing such concentrated sincerity. There’s been some backlash, alleging that Gervais is just using it to poke fun at disabled people. However, most critics seem to regard it as somewhere between “mush outweigh[ing] wit” to “a fascinating, well-meaning mess.” I’m inclined to believe the sincerity of the show because the alternative (i.e. that Gervais is actually mocking the qualities the show appears to promote) would be monstrous; Gervais would be ridiculing not only disabled people, but also kindness, honesty, old people, hard work, and and so on. So, in a culture laced with sarcasm and irony, how are we to process a show whose primary objective is to champion a life without either of them?
It’s possible that I’m just projecting, because I have been rejecting irony recently as well. Irony, to me, seems to be both easy and exclusionary: it’s easy to caveat oneself in irony — “Oh I didn’t mean it” — and it segregates those who recognize it from those who don’t. In the words of David Foster Wallace, “[...] irony entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing.” Several critics pointed out that Derek becomes a little frustrating and/or boring by the end of its seven episodes, but that may be part of the point. I hope I am not giving Gervais too much credit when I suggest that Derek is the sort of thing Wallace had in mind when he talked about “single-entendre” principals: characters who say what they mean and a world in which sincerity triumphs. Yes, perhaps the world of Derek is a little boring (and I still maintain that they need to change the soundtrack), but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a descriptive world of double-entendre; it’s a prescriptive world in which the important things (kindness, sincerity, thoughtfulness) rightly win at the end of the day. If that world makes us bored or uncomfortable, perhaps we should consider why we have that reaction.
In one of the early episodes, Derek reflects on a conversation he had with a deceased resident and says, “It’s more important to be kind than clever or good-looking. I’m not clever or good-looking, but I am kind.” This is an apt description of the show as well, and why I have enjoyed watching it. I really do hope that Gervais is being as earnest as he appears to be (though it might contradict previously publicized versions of himself), because I think it’s much more interesting. To end with another Wallace comment: “The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘how banal.’“
Have you watched Derek? What do you think? Am I falling for a trap here and, either way, do you have an opinion on single-entendre principles?
Note: David Foster Wallace quotations taken from Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story by D.T. Max, pp. 156-57.