Ricky Gervais gets bad hair, good heart in Netflix's 'Derek'

Ricky Gervais plays an orderly in Netflix’s tender-hearted dramedy “Derek.”
Ricky Gervais plays an orderly in Netflix’s tender-hearted dramedy “Derek.” RAY BURMISTON – NETFLIX

In Netflix’s tender-hearted dramedy “Derek,” an elderly friend tells Ricky Gervais’ mentally challenged title character that it’s “more important to be kind than clever.”

Sweet advice for life, but does it apply to sitcoms?

“Derek” suggests it does – in the right hands.

When it debuted on British TV last January, some critics saw mean-spirited derision in Gervais’ badly hair-cut Derek.

That complaint seems wildly off base and may have had less to do with “Derek” than with the comedian’s crude use of an epithet for the handicapped in previous stand-up routines.

If anything, “Derek” seems like an exercise in repentance, as Gervais (writing, directing and starring) presents the lovable character with such saintliness that the show routinely risks condescension.

But “Derek” mostly succeeds, both in its “The Office”-style comedy and lump-in-your-throat generosity.

In the faux-documentary format that Gervais popularized, “Derek” is set in a small, middle-income residence for the elderly.

His Derek Noakes is the home’s orderly and all-purpose angel, a 49-year-old man who calls an ambulance for a dying bird and quietly cries at the passing of each resident.

(“Derek” confronts that issue squarely and often, with death a prominent plot point in two of the season’s seven 30-minute episodes.)

“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he says, noting that all of his “favoritest people” live or work at the home. Does it need mentioning that a show unafraid to use “favoritest” isn’t averse to some serious heart-tugging?

“Derek” mostly avoids preciousness by creating a credible universe, with the cash-strapped nursing home an embattled oasis of compassion in a callous world.

The elderly actors are refreshingly free of sitcom stereotypes – there’s not a cute, cantankerous curmudgeon in sight.

Gervais plays Derek in broader fashion and relies a bit too much on a mouth-twisting tic and the side-swept bangs. But when “Derek” turns poignant, show and star stand leagues above Gervais’ mockumentary imitators like the maudlin “Modern Family.”