Friday, April 10, 2015

Netflix's 'Derek' Is Either an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist, or a Lost Series of 'Doctor Who'

I've been binge-watching shows on Netflix recently. It's to make up for lost ground; for several months in the past, I paid the $7.99 monthly fee without even watching one show or movie. Last month, I watched all of Parks and Recreation in a couple of weeks. This past week, I watched all 13 episodes (two series and one special) of a Ricky Gervais mockumentary-style comedy-drama called Derek.

Set in an English retirement home, this show is about kindness in a world full of sadness and cruelty. The main character is Derek Noakes, whose physical quirks and tics imply an ambiguous disability. But any diagnosis of disability is irrelevant for Derek, whose purpose in life is to create happiness for those around him -- his saint of a boss Hannah, the elderly residents of the retirement home, and his equally quirky friends. You could say that Derek actually has a superhuman capacity for empathy.

I liked the show. I liked the quirkiness and the overbearing moments of sadness and the fleeting bits of joy ... and some, okay most, of the crude humor. I've read that some critics and viewers don't share my approval of the show. I can imagine how frustrating it could be to watch Derek one episode per week, over the course of six weeks per season, for two years, with a Christmas special at the end of the third year. Derek is definitely a show for binge-watching, not for traditional must-see-TV-type viewing.

In any case, there are two major criticisms for the show. The first is a negative response to Ricky Gervais' depiction of Derek Noakes. On the surface, in trailers and commercials and photos, it seems like Derek is a cruel parody of people with disabilities. The solution to that criticism would be to watch any episode of the show. Derek is good and kind and true -- and a hero that's totally out of place in the television zeitgeist of anti-heroes.

The major second criticism is that the show is emotionally manipulative: The elderly characters die, Derek gets sad, there's a lot of crying, and the sad piano score gets heavy-handed -- and there's actually one instance of Coldplay's "Fix You" as the soundtrack for a sad scene in the show. Yes, the sadness of the show can get overwhelming -- the (spoiler!) fate of Derek's favorite dog Ivor comes to mind -- but is this show emotionally manipulative?

Yes. Derek is as emotionally manipulative as any other story told properly. Storytelling is, by definition, emotionally manipulative. You root for the hero, and hate the bad guy, because the storyteller wants you to root for the hero and hate the bad guy. If you root for the bad guy and hate the hero, then the storyteller either wanted to be ironic or told the story poorly. If a story is not emotionally manipulative, you're probably dealing with a geometric proof of some sort.

The first part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist." The overall tone of the show is bits of joy in an environment of sadness. Derek and mostly everyone else in the home are like family, and they try to be kind to one another, which brings much joy in the retirement home. Because it is a retirement home, however, the residents will eventually die, and there is this overall tone of melancholy for the show.

Derek is basically Limbo in Dante's Inferno. If I recall correctly, Dante's Limbo is a happy place, full of virtuous pagans and unbaptized babies, with a nagging bit of sadness -- the fact that Limbo isn't Heaven. The retirement home in Derek is a mostly happy place, with a nagging bit of sadness, due to the inevitability of death.

We just had Easter last weekend, and I guess I'm obsessed with the theological-mythological (depending on your denomination or belief system) story of the Harrowing of Hell. Basically, on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter Sunday, Jesus rescued the souls in the Limbo part of Hell. Those non-damned souls were able to leave Hell and enter Heaven.

I usually imagine the Harrowing to be an action movie, with fire and demons and Jesus with a sword, but perhaps the story could be told better with goodness and kindness instead. Virtually all the characters in Derek love Derek Noakes for his kindness and goodness. If you mash up Derek and Dante, it seems that Derek Noakes is Jesus in Limbo on Holy Saturday. It's a metaphor, of course, but perhaps not the one that atheist/humanist creator Ricky Gervais intended.

The second part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... a Lost Series of Doctor Who." The character Dougie, the caretaker/Jack of all trades for the retirement home, has a Northern English accent with a moderately baritone pitch. Karl Pilkington's (Dougie) voice reminded me of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, who also spoke with a Northern baritone. So that got me thinking -- headcanon time! -- that a freshly-regenerated Ninth Doctor suffered from so much depression due to the destruction/disappearance of Gallifrey, that he could bear to live anymore. He didn't want to kill himself -- that would have only triggered a premature regeneration -- so he used a chameleon arch pocket watch to stop being a Time Lord.

This chameleon arch was special because it had a chameleon circuit. The Ninth Doctor kept his voice (approximately) but his cropped hair became bald with too much hair on the sides, and his eyesight got worse. And so, for a time, the Ninth Doctor hid from the Time War by being a curmudgeonly caretaker of an English retirement home, named Dougie. Dougie ... Doctie ... Doctor?

Dougie could fix almost anything, with a regular screwdriver. Eventually, with the kindness of Derek, Dougie started to realize there was something more to his mundane existence. Being overwhelmed by the stresses of the home, and being electrocuted at the beginning of the second series of Derek, Dougie remembered about the chameleon arch pocket watch.

Dougie quit his job and was never seen again. He resumed being the Doctor, with a more aesthetically pleasing haircut (and hairline), which made his ears a bit more conspicuous. The Doctor then knew he had to clean up the fallout of the Time War, starting with the Autons in 2005 London.

If I edited a series of screen shots for Tumblr, perhaps this Dougie/Doctor headcanon would find an audience. In any case, I must figure out what to binge-watch next. No, who am I kidding? The fifth season of Game of Thrones premieres on Sunday! I'll have to take that show one week at a time ...

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