Unexpectedly poignant and only sporadically funny, Ricky Gervais’ latest series, “Derek,” is a rare solo effort for the comic, making its U.S. debut via Netflix after his lengthy affiliation with HBO. Although it takes awhile to grow accustomed to Gervais’ character — a seemingly autistic man working in a struggling convalescent home — the show is filled with a beguiling sense of melancholy, and a knockout performance by Kerry Godliman as the facility’s caring administrator. Given Gervais’ long association with HBO (which will carry his collaborator Stephen Merchant’s upcoming series), the pay service should think of “Derek” as one that got away.
In a way, Gervais himself is the weakest link in what’s otherwise a thoughtful, sometimes-moving seven-episode run. That’s because there’s an unevenness to his portrayal of Derek Noakes, who clenches his jaw and hunches his shoulders and forever seems to be fiddling with his hands.
Granted, viewers familiar with the actor might find it difficult to see him disappear into this sort of character, but part of that has to do with Gervais’ struggle to convincingly portray the quirks in this “Rain Man”-like role.
Using a mock documentary device (a la “The Office” and “Life Is Short”) that features characters in interviews who occasionally cast sideways glances toward the camera, the project at first appears to be going for the broadest, most obvious laughs by playing off Derek’s eccentricity in his caretaker role and the daft nature of the old folks being warehoused there.
Stick with it, though, and “Derek” begins zeroing in on significant issues — the power of kindness, the nature of mortality and the notion of caring for those who can no longer do so for themselves. “They ain’t got long, so every minute is important,” Derek says of his elderly charges at one point.
The title notwithstanding, the real star here is Godliman as Hannah, who is both terribly protective of Derek and so committed to her job she risks sacrificing a potential romance that has come into her life. Wonderfully relatable, tough yet vulnerable, it’s easily the best female character to come from Gervais since Ashley Jensen’s turn in “Extras.”
Also on hand: Dougie (Karl Pilkington, Gervais’ producer and foil on his podcasts, surprisingly effective) as the facility’s do-everything handy man with a horrible haircut; and Kev (David Earl), a lewd and randy sort (he goes to the library looking for anything he can find with nudity in it) who just kinda hangs around.
The individual episodes are never about much — an outside administrator visits to check out the facility; they celebrate Derek’s birthday, etc. — and as always, Gervais (who wrote, produced and directed) seems enamored with capturing the most uncomfortable moments. He also tries to have fun with Derek’s childlike innocence, which includes peppering Dougie with inane questions, a device that yields mixed results.
While “Derek’s” indie-film sensibility naturally plays to a premium platform, Gervais’ existing fanbase makes the show a shrewd acquisition for Netflix, building on the foundation the service has established with “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” And while some of Gervais’ recent efforts have felt a trifle tired, thanks to “Derek’s” inherent sweetness, the comic can hold his head up high, even if his namesake generally doesn’t.