British drabness vs American glamour
The US sitcom Speechless is one of a groundswell of recent television shows with a disabled main character. Special on Netflix and Jerk on BBC3 were created by and star actors with cerebral palsy, while Don’t Forget the Driver on BBC 2, also has a central character with the condition. All are billed are comedies, although the latter is frequently very dark. It is a tonal distinction that seems to mark a difference between US and British sensibilities. Speechless and Special are both set in America, and conform in many ways to sitcom conventions that are predominantly American: polished, slightly pat comic dialogue, very delineated characters, and a sense of fundamental safety. Tim Renkow, who created and stars in Jerk, is American, but the series is set in Britain, and he mines a great deal of comedy from the contrast between his brashness and British diffidence. There’s also a sense that he is exploiting a very British quality of drabness that is not available in America, with its steadfast fixation on glamour and gloss. That drabness is only touched upon in Jerk, while Don’t Forget the Driver lets it blossom very nearly into despair. It is a quality that allows for a more straightforward acknowledgement of difficulty and sadness than American optimism can accommodate.
Perhaps the British location gives Renkow more freedom to make his anti-hero more unattractive – allowing him to counter the tendency to represent idealised or sanitised disabled characters. As he says in interview, ““On screen disabled people are often less like characters and more like plot devices. I don’t like that disabled people are never flawed.” And in Jerk, his character is gleefully obnoxious.
© Emma Sullivan, University of Edinburgh, 2019.