Gervais Gets Kinder in ‘Derek’: Billie Jean King: TV

In Netflix’s tender-hearted dramedy “Derek,” an elderly friend tells Ricky Gervais’s 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’s 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.)

Lucky Man

“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’s mockumentary imitators like the maudlin “Modern Family.”

“Derek” will be available Thursday, Sept. 12, on Netflix. Rating: ****

Billie Jean

Billie Jean King wasn’t yet 12 when she spent $9.20 on a tennis racket, then announced to her bemused parents that she would become the best player in the world.

Other startling announcements would come later, some with similarly larger-than-life ramifications (yep, she’s gay). All are covered in PBS’s “American Masters” King profile.

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of King’s era-defining battle-of-the sexes match against Bobby Riggs, the documentary chronicles the high points (Wimbledon victories, feminist milestones, the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom) and the low (the 1981 palimony suit that outed her and decimated her endorsement deals).

Despite her other accomplishments, King will inevitably be remembered most for the Riggs match.

The stakes, she recalls, were much higher than the circus-like atmosphere suggested: With the 1972 Title IX legislation barely a year old, conservative politicians were looking for any excuse to disparage and defund female athletics.

Though it later sags a bit, the film builds to the Riggs showdown with fine momentum, vividly resurrecting a time when King and other female players were routinely questioned by sportscasters about giving up the jock stuff and settling down.

No less a sports sage than Howard Cosell praised King upon her entrance at the 1973 match in this way: If she’d only grow her hair out and lose the eyeglasses, she could be as pretty as a Hollywood star.

“American Masters: Billie Jean King” airs Tuesday, Sept. 10, on PBS at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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