Ricky Gervais’s new series of Derek has once again divided viewers and critics. The show is a sentimental ‘mockumentary’ following, principally, four characters in a nursing home for the elderly. I loved the first series, the final episode being as moving as the christmas special of The Office. Many of the criticisms stem from a frustration that it’s simply too sentimental; “the mush outweighs the wit, with episodes ending on tides of sentiment” moans the New York Times. But is that a bad thing?
Even the broadly positive review in the Hollywood Reporter calls Derek’s perfect unselfishness and devotion to the ‘forgotten elderly’ two dimensional, “too sweet”. Yet alongside Derek, Hannah, who runs the home, and Dougie, the handyman, also have unshakeable decency and hearts of gold. Even Kev, the lewd and seedy hanger-on, has what for me is the show’s defining moment; his talking head in the final episode of the first series is the unadorned conduit delivering the show’s meaning from Gervais to us, simultaneously Kev’s shame and his insight revealing a vulnerability, his cover briefly and utterly obliterated by the silent scrutiny of the camera. The only bad guys are among the visitors.
I wondered just what it was that made so many people despise a show that was only really guilty of presenting a group of characters in a way that overtly, and strongly, intended to make you reflect on your own feelings regarding family and the importance of kindness.
To that end, Derek, and for that matter most of Disney’s ouevre, are structured so as to instigate these emotions, from the former’s black and white montages of the elderly residents in their younger days to the latter’s ubiquitous, near inviolable coda of positive family values and happy endings.
Why are many of us so moved by the sentimentality we see? These programs and movies offer ‘feeling voyeurism’ of a sort, empathising with others’ grief and joy. In our lives, the death of loved ones, the feelings we have when seeing old photographs, the moments when our children first walk, or tell us that the game’s up with the myth of Santa, all move us immensely. When we attend funeral services and wakes, we are periodically confronted with the terrible truth of our mortality, a potent cocktail of nostalgia, regret and promises (to ourselves and others). Even if we weren’t close to those departed, the rest of our lives, the routines, fade to grey for those hours. I’ve stood at Adams’ funeral parlour in Barry and felt like I was in a cocoon. The cars went past as we waited to be led by the hearse, those other people, between funerals, and their thousands of purposes being fulfilled. All else seemed trivial, if not slightly wrong (‘stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’). At the same time, the business of life fundamentally matters, for if not that, then what?
There are a couple of quotes in this fascinating and insightful essay on sentimentality that bring into relief where the sneering at sentimentality may come from; Oscar Wilde’s “the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it” and Milan Kundera’s “We cry one tear for the children playing on the grass, and then we cry another tear for our ability to cry at the children playing on the grass!”
I think both miss the mark. We might not have experienced the particular event that has led to that other person’s emotion, but we could not empathise if we were not able to translate what we are witnessing into some experience we’ve had that triggered a similar feeling. Wilde’s quote suggests a revulsion of ‘mere sentimentality’ as being somehow fraudulent, disingenuous: “You’ve made me sad, well done, is that it!” But we have paid for that emotion, or else there would be no empathy.
Kundera’s quote I think gets it plain wrong. I don’t think that we congratulate ourselves for being moved strongly by what we’re witnessing. I for one am not conscious of my own powers of empathy in the moment I am absorbed by a film, documentary or book, but maybe others are. When I’m feeling moved by the things I watch, the feeling is unbidden, the chord struck is unconscious. It’s as though the moment I’m witnessing has pulled it from me and in spite of me.
I can’t believe that the art that achieves this can be criticized for it. Indeed, the criticism seems to be that a work of art that only does this is not worthy of respect.
But any work that pulls from you the feelings you have at great and small crises and epiphanies in your life is surely valuable for re-introducing you to the canvas, recognition of the base layer of desire’s ephemerality and life’s fragility, without which the sound and fury really would signify nothing.