As an editor, the title of Stephen Merchant’s new HBO comedy series ‘Hello Ladies’ troubles me. Grammatically, the title should read ‘Hello, Ladies’ with a comma after the greeting “hello” that directly addresses the subject “ladies.” Otherwise, the “hello” becomes modifier for the noun, as if the show were about something called the “hello ladies,” whatever those might be. (I fear that Hello Kitty may be involved.) I recognize that this very likely won’t bother anyone other than me. Nevertheless, it’s all I could think about while watching the premiere on Sunday.
The show is a solo effort for Merchant, who’s best known as Ricky Gervais’ writing and producing partner, co-creator of ‘The Office’ (British version) and ‘Extras’. While Merchant has acted in supporting roles (and did a pretty hilarious lip-syncing act with Jimmy Fallon recently), this also marks his first starring lead. He plays Stuart, a nerdy web developer who desperately wants to be a ladies’ man. At almost every waking moment, Stuart obsesses about scoring with women. He is never successful at this.
That’s basically the recap of the ‘Pilot’ episode (and seemingly the series as a whole) in a nutshell. In scene after scene, Stuart awkwardly inserts himself into social situations in an attempt to pick up pretty girls, at which he fails every time. Frequently tagging along is his best friend Wade (Nate Torrence from ‘Go On’ and the ‘Get Smart’ movie), a pathetic schlub currently in the middle of a divorce. Wade doesn’t particularly care about flirting with girls. In fact, he really wishes he could get back together with his wife, but in the meantime, all he wants is to spend some time with Stuart. For his part, Stuart is a pretty terrible friend. He brushes off Wade in a moment of need when he (erroneously) believes that he has a “vibe” with a shallow young actress named Courtney (Sarah Wright from ‘Parks and Recreation’). Later, he drags a clearly-uncomfortable Wade along to a nightclub when they had previously agreed to go bowling, and then abandons him there. Stuart’s increasingly-desperate attempts to get Courtney’s attention at the club result in him accidentally agreeing to pick up the bar tab for her huge party of friends, which leaves him $800 poorer and ends in disaster.
Also appearing in supporting roles are Christine Woods (‘FlashForward’, ‘Perfect Couples’) as the neighbor/tenant named Jessica that Stuart has an unrequited crush on (to be fair, he has unrequited crushes on nearly every woman he sees), and Kevin Weisman (‘Alias’) as Stuart’s wheelchair-bound nemesis Kives (pronounced “kee-vis”). Weisman is really fun in this. Kives uses many of the same pick-up lines that Stuart does, but because he’s in a wheelchair, women find him adorable, and he gleefully rubs his success in Stuart’s face.
In writing this recap, I’ve had to actively resist the temptation to overuse the adjectives “pathetic” and “desperate,” both of which accurately describe nearly everything the main character does. ‘Hello Ladies’ is rooted in the same comedy-of-humiliation formula that Merchant honed in his works with Gervais. While Stuart, despite his flaws, is actually a sympathetic character, and Merchant’s performance suggests that his craving for companionship masks deeper issues, the first episode is almost sadistically unbalanced toward wallowing in his failure. Unlike ‘Extras’ (and to a lesser extent the original ‘The Office’, but more so the American version), it lacks any small but critical moments of redemption that might explain or validate why Stuart continues to do what he does despite how obviously bad he is at it. This is something that I hope future episodes can address. There will need to be more to the show than simply watching Stuart find new and more ridiculous ways to embarrass himself and repel women every week.
I like Stephen Merchant, I like the premise, and I liked the pilot episode overall. But I didn’t love it, and I expected to. (I’d already committed to a series recording on my DVR before the episode even aired, based only on the network promos.) I’ll keep watching, and hoping that this develops more like ‘Extras’, and less like ‘Life’s Too Short’, the most recent and least successful of Merchant’s collaborations with Ricky Gervais.