Stephen Merchant's new HBO series "Hello Ladies," premiering Sunday, September 29th, is the kind of thing you watch with your hands over your eyes -- at least if you have the kind of complicated relationship with cringe humor that I do. Merchant is a longtime collaborator with Ricky Gervais -- the two co-created "The Office," "Extras" and "Life's Too Short" and together host "The Ricky Gervais Show." While in his own recent solo project "Derek" Gervais has tried out an awkward sincerity, Merchant has chosen to continue working in the vein of comedy the two have previously made their own, a kind built on minor but excruciatingly staged humiliations.
Merchant, who co-created "Hello Ladies" with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (from the American "The Office") stars as Stuart, the British owner of a small web design company who seems to have moved to Los Angeles to lead the type of glamorous life for which he's pathologically unsuited. Stuart's not unsuccessful -- he owns a home with a pool house that's being rented by Jessica (Christine Woods), an aspiring actress, and he drives a BMW that, despite his claims, is more "old" than "vintage." But Stuart really wants to be, as the kids say, a baller, and in L.A. he doesn't have anywhere near the fame, charm, wealth, power or looks to win over the type of women he tends to approach, models and actresses he attempts to impress with transparent posturing.
The primary thing that can keep this type of humor from coming across as unbearably cruel is the main creative force behind it taking the brunt of the blows, and Merchant doesn't shy away from this duty, using his distinctive physicality -- he's a gangly 6'7" -- and what are apparently some of his personal dating mishaps -- to fill out Stuart's misadventures.
Stuart makes a flirty abortion joke at a bar, lies to a bouncer about being famous in England and is called on his bluff and gets roped into buying $800 worth of drinks for a group of people at a club when he only wanted to buy drinks for the girls he was talking to. Some of these sequences, like the one at the club, are unrelentingly uncomfortable, with Stuart perched too far away from his romantic target to hear the anecdotes he nevertheless laughs along with, after which he tries to holler pick-up lines across the crowd.
The sequences are more hard to watch than they are strictly funny, though that's by design if not something I personally care for. What balances the series out is that Stuart is a bit of a prat, hellbent on proving himself a Big Deal to make up for childhood slights from which he still smarts. As he confesses to his friend, Wade (Nate Torrence), "I've actually got a fantasy of one day driving back to my hometown in a limo with my beautiful wife who's a model with a Ph.D in... philosophy. Smart lady. We're driving in and everyone we ever went to school with and all the girls that wouldn't ever go on dates with me, they come out and see the limo and they're like, 'Who's that? It's Stuart Pritchard! Why did we let him slip through our fingers?'" He doesn't necessarily think he'll be happy with the types of woman he keeps pursuing -- he's fantastically uncomfortable around them -- but he sees them as a way to prove his status and worth to the world.
Like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Eastbound & Down," "Enlightened," "Girls" and "Veep," "Hello Ladies" is about a protagonist who's often obliviously awful, but who has moments of vulnerability that make him impossible to easily dismiss. Despite all his unconvincing swagger and arrogance, Stuart's clearly very lonely, a condition the series sums up with wordless eloquence in the scenes of him standing alone in the grocery store frozen food aisle after striking out at the end of the night.
Stuart has people in his life, such as Jessica, with whom he has a bickering rapport, and the guileless, heartbroken Wade, who could pick a better person to lean on as his marriage ends, and even Kives (Kevin Weisman), who despite being wheelchair-bound is better with the ladies than Stuart. But they're not the kind of people he needs, in his mind, the hot shots and bored beauties by which he wants to be surrounded despite their utter lack of interest in him.
As a comedy, "Hello Ladies" is fine, a natural, less flashy outgrowth of "Extras" and "Life's Too Short." But it's a better portrait of a very specific kind of quiet L.A. misery it's possible to experience amidst the sunshine and palm trees, one in which the constant reminders of one's own lack of importance constantly chip away at the obligatory positivity with which one is supposed to greet the day.