Stepping out of the shadow of long-time partner Ricky Gervais, how will Stephen Merchant fare with his solo project Hello Ladies? On the evidence of this pilot episode, there’s a lot of work to do.
Merchant plays Stuart, a British web designer in Los Angeles seeking to live the Hollywood lifestyle and find the girl of his dreams.
He has a lodger, Jessica (Christine Woods, FlashForward), an actress who’s developing her own web series, and he is accompanied on his adventures round LA’s clubs and bars by his friends Wade (Nate Torrence, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), who is struggling to come to terms with his wife of 11 years leaving him, and the wheelchair-bound Kives (Kevin Weisman, Alias).
The opening episode follows Stuart as he commits one cringe-inducing act after another without even seeming to notice. His increasingly awkward attempts to hook up with one of Jessica’s friends result in him buying drinks for half the patrons at a club before a soaking which reveals the condom tucked into his shirt pocket.
Merchant hasn’t strayed too far from familiar – and historically successful – territory here. Stuart is based on Merchant’s own experiences and echoes The Office‘s David Brent, Extras‘ Andy Millman and Life’s Too Short‘s Warwick Davis – the awkward, self-delusional misfit who others tend to laugh at rather than with.
Like each of those earlier series, much of Merchant’s observational humour is spot-on as he taps into the pulse of both the LA scene and the life of a lonely single man.
There’s also a certain poignancy about each of the four principal characters, which is where the episode works best. Stuart lives on a diet of microwave dinners for one, which he eats alone. Jessica’s apparent lack of success as an actress has left her with self-esteem issues. Wade is a reluctant third wheel, still pining for the wife who left him. Kives, the one who has a genuine reason to feel sorry for himself, seems the most balanced of all.
The cast is also excellent, with Weisman clearly having a ball hamming it up as the cocky Kives and Woods showing crisp comic timing in her role as a straight-faced counterfoil.
The bad and the ugly
In staying close to familiar territory, there’s a strong sense of Merchant playing the same one-note character in the same way, an accusation often levelled at Gervais. Indeed much of Stuart’s dialogue and mannerisms could be readily transplanted into his Darren Lamb character in Extras. It’s hard to avoid a sense of ‘been there, done that’.
Also Stuart comes across as unsympathetic rather than merely incompetent. He lacks self-awareness, treats his friends badly and seems more concerned with the act of attracting women than he is interested in the women themselves. Consequently he comes across more as pathetic than sympathetic – it’s hard to root for him in any way – whereas the leads in all the series he co-wrote with Gervais had more of a balance between the two.
There was something appealing at heart about David Brent, a man promoted into a job he was ill-suited for, but who fundamentally wanted nothing more than to make people like him. There’s little of that about Stuart so far. Hopefully that will be redressed in future episodes.
I’m also concerned about the apparent set-up. If this is going to turn into a constant cycle of one embarrassing rejection upon another in clubs/in restaurants/at the gym/at the grocery store/on blind dates, I fear it will quickly become tiresome and repetitive.
In fairness, it’s possible I’m being overly harsh about a show which could be a slow-burner – a bit like The Office was, in fact – and merely needs a few episodes to find its groove and make its lead character less one-dimensional. For me, this first episode felt like a combination of Joey (another fish out of water in LA comedy) with fewer laughs and Extras without the big-name guest stars. It’s worth a second look, but for now, it’s merely okay.
Dating, mating or masturbating?
Kives’ chat-up line, which works far better for him than the somewhat creepy “Hello, ladies” does for Stuart.
Hello Ladies continues on Sky Atlantic on Wednesdays at 10pm.