‘Hello Ladies,’ oh, my, it’s him again
Funnyman Stephen Merchant plays the ultimate obnoxious guy
September 24, 2013
Back when Woody Allen was breaking out as a movie star, we began to see more and more comedies with loser heroes who were socially inept introverts with essentially good hearts. Nowadays, the loser heroes in comedies tend to be socially inept extroverts who are essentially jerks.
One of the people most responsible for that change is Stephen Merchant, who with Ricky Gervais created the epitome of the character type, David Brent, played by Gervais in the original version of “The Office.” So it’s understandable that Merchant’s first leading role in a comedy, in HBO’s new series “Hello Ladies,” is an overconfident boor who can’t understand his difficulty connecting with people in general and attractive women in particular.
Since Merchant is a gifted writer and performer, the series is diverting and funny, but the character and situations are too familiar. Like its hero, “Hello Ladies” could wear out its welcome quickly.
In the premiere episode, airing this Sunday, Sept. 29, at 10:30 p.m., Stuart (Merchant), an English web designer living in Los Angeles, wangles his way into a trendy bar so he can spend time with Courtney (Sarah Wright), a pretty actress who is working with Stuart’s tenant, Jessica (Christine Woods), on a web series that Jessica is writing.
When Stuart impulsively says, “Drinks are on me,” he winds up getting stuck with the bill for a dozen or so of her friends. Then, when attempting to deliver a witticism, he topples onto a tray of shots.
Merchant and his co-writers, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, both veterans of the American version of “The Office,” provide sharp, funny dialogue. After Stuart introduces his friend Wade (Nate Torrence) to two women in a bar, Wade says, “As in Roe v. Wade.”
“No need to bring up abortion,” says Stuart, adding, with a leer, “until we need to.”
Wade is ineffectual on the singles scene largely because he constantly mentions his recent separation from his wife. Their friend Kives (Kevin Weisman) is relatively successful, perhaps because his wheelchair provides a distraction from his abrasive personality.
In the second episode provided for review, Wade reserves a limo for a date with his wife, Marion (Crista Flanagan), who turns him down. Stuart sees the limo as a way of impressing nightclub doormen. When this fails, he, Wade and Kives pick up three teachers from St. Louis.
The same night, Jessica decides to have a “salon” with a few of her actress friends. She plays jazz and tries to get them to watch “The Battleship Potemkin.” They persuade her go out to a club instead, hitching a ride in the limo.
Stuart immediately blows off the teacher with whom he has been flirting and starts hitting on the actresses, to no avail.
He is similarly inconsiderate throughout. He completely ignores Wade’s marital problems and treats Kives like a nuisance, saying, “He’s so slow!”
We’re usually a little happy to see Stuart fail, but the episodes end with a note of pathos as Stuart drives home at night and fixes himself a lonely-guy supper or shares some limo snacks with Jessica.
It’s unclear whether the show’s creators intend for Stuart to grow and learn. For the satire to work, he’s going to have to stay the same. Steve Carell, playing the boss on the American “Office,” managed to learn nothing and stay funny for most of the series’ run, but his character wasn’t the focus of every episode.
Jessica could take up some of the slack. Her self-delusion is more endearing. She talks about rewriting her web series, which is about globalization, so that it’s “about how it affects us all on a local level.”
Despite Jessica’s potential for character development, it’s more likely that “Hello Ladies” will have a limited run, like most of Merchant’s TV projects with Gervais. The difference is that the limited run might not necessarily be Merchant’s decision.
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