Character diagnosis not the center of Gervais' 'Derek'

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Ricky Gervais’ “Derek,” which returned to Netflix on Friday with six new episodes that recently aired on British television, is a quiet and hopeful little comedy about social behavior, as seen and understood by a man who is … well, what is Derek?

Gervais, who stars as Derek Noakes, carefully avoids providing viewers with a diagnosis for his character, which he first performed in a stand-up comedy routine more than a decade ago. He has said that Derek, who works as an aide in a nursing home, isn’t mentally disabled or intellectually challenged. Perhaps he’s autistic. Not knowing seems to be the entire point: Can’t we just relate to Derek on his own, as he is, beyond a label?

When it had its American debut in the fall, “Derek” deserved a viewer’s wariness. What possible business — what possible reason — could Gervais have in taking on such a role, other than to make fun of a differently abled person or to seek some maudlin applause for broadening his range?

Clad in Derek’s zipper sweaters and exhibiting an array of nervous tics, Gervais has given himself the freedom to assess the human condition; in the ways that matter most, “Derek” is right in line with Gervais’ other shows -—“The Office,” “Extras,” “Life’s Too Short” — in that it revels in the inescapable truths found in awkward situations.

So relax: “Derek” is an honest and often charming endeavor. “Derek” is fully comfortable with showing us the experience of aging and dying. “I loves old people,” Derek says about his job. “I think I’ve learned everything I knows from old people.” This is refreshing news after so many shows that mostly mock the elderly.

The show handles its subject matter with remarkable care as Derek faces new, sometimes upsetting situations this season. His alcoholic father becomes a resident at the nursing home, while a new employee seems intent on disrupting the facility’s pleasant routines. Meanwhile, Derek’s boss, Hannah (Kerry Godliman), and her boyfriend, Tom (Brett Goldstein), are trying to conceive — an effort Derek has an enthusiastic and clinical curiosity about.

Though it leans on some exhausted tropes — especially Gervais’ dependence on the mockumentary format — “Derek” wisely heaps its dirtiest humor on a single character, Derek’s perpetually drunk friend Kev (David Earl), whose appetites for sex and sloth stand in stark contrast to Derek’s generous and naive spirit.

The idea is that Derek simply doesn’t know better, that he cannot recognize Kev’s repulsiveness enough to shun it.

Tone is everything. In reaching for tenderness, “Derek” sometimes wanders into the sugary sweet; in going for laughs, it sometimes forgets to effectively conclude a story arc. But “Derek” is a poignant and funny character sketch. All it really wants to tell us is that everyone ought to be lucky enough to find a place where they belong.