After an uninspiring start, Stephen Merchant‘s Hello Ladies steadily improved but never succeeded in scaling the heights of The Office, Extras or HBO stablemate Girls.
An upward but gentle trajectory
I was fairly critical in my review of the show’s opening episode. In particular, the selfish and unsympathetic nature of Merchant’s Stuart Pritchard – a British web designer in Los Angeles seeking the girl of his dreams – was a major impediment to drawing in an audience. He’s rude rather than self-absorbed, delusional rather than misguided and with little regard for his few friends.
Over the course of the eight episodes, Stuart does become less unsympathetic but it’s still difficult to warm to him because the character lacks any dimensions, both in terms of his personal history and his motivations. We learn he’s afraid of being alone – that’s as deep as it gets.
In between, we’re left to cringe at the fact he’s a cheapskate …
… and marvel at the level of self-delusion which sees him declaring as much to himself as to his employee Rory that Kimberly, the personification of his dreams, is “smarter than you think … she likes intellectual debate” rather than just an archetypal blonde bimbo model.
Stuart bumbles from one disaster to another – a first date, a pool party, a wedding – via a combination of selfish yet inept actions which make you wonder how he manages to retain the few friends he has. Only in the closing moments of the finale does he redeem himself. He finally hooks up with Kimberly but abandons the culmination of his dream to rush home to comfort his lodger Jessica (Christine Woods), who has lost the starring role in NCIS: Los Angeles that was her dream.
Jessica is the best drawn of all the principal characters. A struggling actress and author of a terrible web series, she spends much of the season stumbling from one failure to another as her self-esteem takes one knock after another. Her agent and boyfriend Glenn treats her poorly, and her ‘frenemy’ and fellow actress Amelia is never shy of rubbing her nose in it.
Stuart’s two male friends, however, lack any real development. In the world’s slowest-moving arc, the underused Wade (Nate Torrence) continues to obsess optimistically about his estranged wife Marion until a cruel but accurate comment from Stuart causes him to remove her from the family photo he uses as his cellphone’s wallpaper. The easygoing Kives (Kevin Weisman) steals what few scenes he is in, but has no real agency of his own other than to serve as a counterpoint – the one character who, despite being wheelchair-bound, is happy with his life.
Neither hit nor miss?
HBO has an enviable hit rate with its own home-grown comedies, blazing a trail with Curb Your Enthusiasm and subsequently handing the baton on to Girls and Veep. So a commission for Ricky Gervais’ long-time writing partner Stephen Merchant should have been as close to a cast-iron guarantee as it is possible to have in the modern TV world.
Sadly, what I ended up with was a strong sense of having been there, done that and got the T-shirt. Substitute LA for Slough and Merchant for Gervais or Warwick Davis and Hello Ladies is really just The Office or Life’s Too Short in a different setting.
That is not necessarily a bad thing – fans of Gervais and Merchant’s earlier works (as I am) will find much that is likeable and familiar about the cringe-making adventures of Merchant’s Stuart Pritchard. Indeed I much prefer Merchant’s Wallace and Gromit grin and gangly awkwardness to Gervais’ gurning, and Woods brings a touching vulnerability to Jessica. But in many respects the comedy is too familiar and therefore lacking in originality, with even the not-so-subtle digs at the shallowness of the LA lifestyle revisiting ground that has been well trodden by other shows.
In fact, perhaps the biggest problem with the show is its timing. Hello Ladies lacks the freshness The Office enjoyed back in 2001, and the bar for comedy cringe has been raised significantly by series such as Girls, which combines at times brutal frankness with a complex, well-rounded and altogether more daring set of characters.
Hello Ladies works at its best when it switches the focus away from Stuart’s adolescent fantasy-chasing antics towards the more bittersweet elements of both his and his friends’ lives – the reality behind the superficial Hollywood gloss. Despite Merchant’s strong performance, Stuart himself is neither interesting nor sympathetic enough for me to invest fully in the series.
It’s perhaps telling that, more than two weeks after the finale aired in the US, there is no news from HBO regarding either renewal or cancellation. And that pretty much sums up where Hello Ladies sits in the pantheon of TV comedies: neither good enough to merit an immediate pick-up nor bad enough to warrant an inevitable axing. It’s merely okay. And that’s a real shame.
Link: Episode 1 review