Stephen Merchant is, and probably will always be, best known as the co-creator of cringe-worthy shows that made Ricky Gervais very famous: The Office, Extras, and The Ricky Gervais Show, amongst others. But last night, he stepped into his first starring role with the premiere of HBO’s Hello Ladies, which he also directed, co-created, and co-wrote. The show stars Merchant as gangly Englishman Stuart Pritchard, who is desperately attempting to find love in Los Angeles. He’s normally accompanied in these endeavors by his recently dumped friend Wade (Nate Torrence) and ultra-charming ladies man Kives (Kevin Weisman).
The pilot opens with a joke that is undeniably hysterical, the kind of wildly inappropriate line that’s to be expected from one of the creators of David Brent and Andy Millman. But unfortunately, the more time spent with Stuart in the first two episodes, it becomes more difficult to find him funny, as his character’s unfolding awfulness becomes a real problem.
The pilot episode follow Stuart as he screws up a night (meant to cheer up the melancholy Wade) by trying, and failing spectacularly, to hit on a beautiful actress. In the show’s second episode, “The Limo,” he similarly ruins a night on the town due to his losing combination of staggering hubris and astounding levels of self-absorption.
Stuart clearly views himself as dopey loser trying his best, oblivious to the fact that he is a jerk to almost everyone almost all the time. The main exception is his roommate Jessica (Christine Woods), a charming struggling actress who wants more from her life than empty Hollywood nonsense. Their relationship mostly consists of friendly bickering – in the pilot, she admits she’s cock-blocking him “because it’s funny” – but their interactions provide the show’s only warmth.
And that is the biggest problem with Hello Ladies; Stuart and his friends are just not particularly pleasant to be around. And unfortunately for Merchant, the cluelessly awful character that he and Gervais popularized has been mined, imitated, and downright stolen so many times that it now feels played out. That makes even more glaring the show’s predictable setup: it’s not hard to see the intended purpose for Jessica, the conveniently beautiful female friend, in this romantic comedy.
The sitcom follows on Merchant’s standup special of the same name, which addressed similar themes of social incompetence and looking for love. But what he pulls off on stage in the character of an endearing, his-life-couldn’t-really-be-this-bad comedian doesn’t quite translate to Stuart, his website developer alter-ego. The real-life Merchant plays it all with a knowing wink and an understanding of why it's all funny, while Stuart flips violently from pathetic to obnoxious with no self-awareness.
Fans of everything Merchant and Gervais have done in the past (I can't count myself as one of them) may find lots to love in Hello Ladies. But overall, it feels like well-trodden ground. The show exists in an outmoded sitcom world and stars an oblivious man in his late thirties who should clearly know better. Merchant is himself very funny and talented, but the show needs more than that to make it worthwhile.