The jerk is back. “Do I look like a terrorist?” he asks airport security as he returns from his native US to Britain. Tim has cerebral palsy and is twitchier than your average nervous suicide bomber. “Actually, you do,” the functionary replies. “You look like you might have been blown up by one of your own badly made devices.”
Is it OK to laugh at such an evidently disablist joke? Perhaps. After all, it was co-written by Tim Renkow, who has cerebral palsy, in a BBC One sitcom about a character called Tim who has cerebral palsy.
What’s clear is that Renkow isn’t writing a show that makes for easy viewing. Renkow plays the eponymous jerk who revels in making the able-bodied feel uncomfortable.
Sometimes there are easier laughs. It’s clearly OK to laugh at Britain’s border control, a gift to comedy that keeps on giving. “But obviously you’re just a dick,” the security lackey continues. “I can’t be bothered with processing you.” “It’s so easy to get into this country,” says Tim as he sweeps past. Jerk isn’t saying anything as overtly critical of government policy as that Britain’s Covid hospitalisation and death rates rose thanks to stupidly admitting travellers infected with the Delta variant, but that’s how I decoded this exchange.
Tim Renkow, Anushka Charkravarti and Helen Monks in Jerk. Photograph: Adam Lawrence/BBC/Roughcut TV
In the first series of Jerk, Tim’s cerebral palsy gave him carte blanche to get away with saying what others dare not. He was Larry David with a twist – none of the biddable Brits this unpleasant American met, especially his super-gullible friend Idris, dared confront Tim for his sociopathic ways.
In series two, Renkow ramps up the jeopardy while again demonstrating that he is to political correctness what Boris Johnson is to statesmanship. Back in Britain, Tim wangles a rent-free flat and a student visa. His chosen field is puppetry, via a postgraduate course. Why? Possibly to give the lie to the adage that you can’t be what you can’t see. But he’s too much of a slacker to fulfil that destiny. Tim just wants to work the system and be 3,000 miles away from his ball-breaking mother, played by Lorraine Bracco, who pops up on video chat to tell her son to use condoms: “Don’t be getting anybody pregnant, OK, ‘cause they’ll come out like you.” So sweet.
Here, though, is the twist. Between series one and two, Tim has gone voguishly identity-fluid. Tim self-describes as able-bodied and double-dares anyone to gainsay him. This results in superbly awkward scenes in which our hero struggles to get in or out of a chair at the college bar; no one, at the risk of undermining his right to self-designate as whatever he wants to be, can help him. “We are living in a post-label society,” says Idris. “If Tim decides to identify as able-bodied, that’s fine.”
Even Idris, the kind of man who unironically wears a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, is trumped in virtue signalling by the student he fancies, Bobbiey (played by the droll Helen Monks). The more she denounces him for political incorrectness, the more he adores her. When he offers to get drinks, she snarls: “Can you not handle someone you perceive as a woman paying for a round?”
The rest of the first episode is a funny meditation on the absurdity of a society that seems predicated on giving everyone the right to self-define but readily shows its true colours in crisis. When Tim manages to blow away £200 of cocaine at a student party, Bobbiey refuses to accept that his disability caused the accident. “He’s just another able-bodied cis white man who thinks he can do anything,” she says, tangled up in her own ostensibly post-oppressive ideology.
Happily, though, there is one person more appalling than Tim. Ruth, the uncaring carer (played with majestic surliness by Sharon Rooney) returns as an empathy-free zone who exists, like Tim only more so, to exploit virtuous numpties like Bobbiey and Idris. In fact, Jerk isn’t so much a sitcom about disability as about how the virtuous get mugged off by sociopaths. There’s a running gag about Ruth demanding Idris clap for carers whenever she comes into the room. In truth, there’s never been a cause less worthy of applause than Ruth. Tim’s a jerk, but Ruth’s a sociopathic slacker. Which should be the title for her spin-off series.