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Preview: Stephen Merchant’s Uneven, Unfunny HBO Comedy ‘Hello Ladies’

Preview: Stephen Merchant's Uneven, Unfunny HBO Comedy 'Hello Ladies'

After working together as writers, producers and stars of TV hits “The Office,” “Extras,” the underrated “Life’s Too Short” and “An Idiot Abroad,” the undeniably, comedically potent duo of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant has decided to split up for their latest TV ventures. Earlier this month, Netflix debuted “Derek,” the latest from Gervais, while this weekend comes “Hello Ladies,” produced, written, directed and starring Merchant, with assists in all departments from Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (who helped make the U.S. port of “The Office” a success). Yet, despite a track record of success and the necessary ingredients for another hit, “Hello Ladies” is a surprisingly and disappointingly uneven effort, completely absent of the craft and precision of Merchant’s previous efforts. 

While much of the comedy from “The Office” and “Extras” relied on David Brent and Andy Millman falling into one cringeworthy situation after another, both of those flawed and at times deeply unlikeable characters had a relatable core to them, of men still striving towards some kind of ambition or dream, no matter how misguided. And it’s that element, at least in the first two episodes sent to press, that’s crucially absent in “Hello Ladies.” The show finds Merchant playing Stuart, an Englishman now living in Los Angeles, and as the title suggests, trying to find sex and romance. And while the premise is rather dusty, there are a lot of potential avenues that could be taken to make it contemporary, fresh and unique, but “Hello Ladies” fails to utilize any of them.

For a show centered around a 6’ 7” Englishman, new to America, none of the comedy revolves around his fish out of water status. To the contrary, he seems remarkably successful, owning a sports car and a property large enough that he has a tenant living in the guest house, Jessica (Christine Woods), an attractive actress who is working on a web series. The pair of them share an easy camaraderie and a spiky friendship not unlike that of Jerry and Elaine from “Seinfeld,” although they haven’t previously dated. Meanwhile, Stuart has one best friend, the pudgy and sweet Wade (Nate Torrence), who is going through a separation from his wife, while he has a pal, the handicapped ladykiller Kives (Kevin Weisman), often coming with them to the clubs—the running joke being that he’s the one always getting laid, despite being in a wheelchair.

However, the majority of the comedy seems to rest simply on Stuart being a self-centered boob, forever on the hunt for a woman but hapless in his endeavors. The pilot episode finds him chasing a colleague Jessica is working with, worming his way into a club opening and making a spectacular ass of himself in the process. While the following episode follows him out on a night on the town in a rented limo with Nate and Kives, partying with with women from St. Louis, before Stuart again chases Jessica’s sexier friends, and makes an ass out of himself. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

While Stuart has the same sort of David Brent/Michael Scott-esque fantasy of his future, living “with my beautiful wife, who’s a model, PhD in philosophy…and everyone I ever went to school with and all the girls that wouldn’t ever go on dates with me, they come, they see the limo, they’re ‘Who’s that? It’s Stuart Pritchard — why’d we let him slip through our fingers?'” the character lacks their heartfelt vulnerability. Stuart is simply buffoonishly insensitive and far from being a mid-level manager at a tiny company in a small city. His career suggests he’s been nothing short of enterprising, which surely would require at least some understanding of how to act in social situations. This creates a fundamental distance in being able to sympathize with his plight. When he heads home each night, stopping late in a nearly empty grocery store to pick up dinner, and eats alone in front of the TV—a melancholy tonal shift that never quite works—he deserves it. Where David Brent or Andy Millman might be well-meaning despite themselves, Stuart is mostly just kind of mean.

Perhaps there is a longer tail-plot at play in the eight-episode first season, but with Stephen Merchant at the helm for half of those—he directs the first four episodes—this is clearly the vision he has put together for “Hello Ladies.” And at least in the early going, the goals of “Hello Ladies” are lightweight, and when coupled with comedy that is as gracelessly executed as Stuart is himself, it can make for rather plodding viewing. It misses by such a distance you wonder how much weight Merchant really carried in his much more entertainingly satisfying relationship with Gervais. Certainly, Merchant has no problem in arranging scenarios that play out for maximum awkward effect, but thus far, he’s missing the heart (that we only assume is Gervais’ speciality) that makes a character like Stuart resonate with empathy even when he’s falling onto a table full of drinks or going for a second chance with a woman he callously rejected. Without that emotion, “Hello Ladies” is more often than not cartoonish and empty. [First two episodes, C-]

“Hello Ladies” premieres Sunday, September 29th at 10:30 PM on HBO.

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