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When Stephen Merchant was at the Television Critics Association touting Hello Ladies, his new HBO comedy that starts tonight, the session became one of the highlights of the tour, with Merchant’s brilliant comic timing and quick wits playing the room at will. He later appeared in a famous clip with Jimmy Fallon, doing lip-sync karaoke with such physical dexterity and impeccable timing and hilarious facial expressions that it went right into the top tier of Fallon’s (many and impressive) gallery of music-comedy bits.
In short, Merchant is damned funny.
Not only did he co-write and co-direct the original version of The Office, he branched out and flexed his abilities in Extras and then in the lesser offerings (Life’s Too Short and An Idiot Abroad), all with writing partner and pal Ricky Gervais. But tonight, Merchant goes solo with Hello Ladies and the result is a series that would have been a whole lot funnier if the cringe-worthy comedy conceit didn’t feel completely played out.
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Of course Gervais and Merchant are masters at this, as is Larry David and his Curb Your Enthusiasm series and, well, basically everything that he says whether in a show or not. The trouble is, cringe-worthy comedy is so overdone at this point that even people like Merchant, who can milk it like almost no one else, can’t make it entertaining anymore. Mostly, it’s just painful to endure.
Which is too bad because I’d pay good money to listen to Merchant riff on anything – act out local weather stories or read soap opera digest storylines. Hell, just to hear him answer questions is often comedic gold (all the physical stuff in the Fallon video was just gravy).
So it’s a little disappointing to have him fall back into a genre he can probably do in his sleep. Hello Ladies is about a sad sack web designer named Stuart (Merchant), who has no connection to the entertainment scene whatsoever, other than his friend and housemate Jessica (Christine Woods) is a struggling actress who hates being reminded she’s “in her 30s” because the dream just hasn’t happened. She, too, is in on the desperation.
Los Angeles itself and the mythical ideal of “Hollywood” to anyone who hasn’t walked through it, permeates the comedy in Hello Ladies. For Stuart, being so close to gorgeous models and luscious and pouting actresses is too much. He believes life – or at least lust – is there for the taking when the audience clearly knows the gangly (6 foot 7 inch) nerd is never going to get lucky. All anyone is left to do is cringe at his sometimes funny, mostly embarrassing and painful attempts to come on to women who have no interest in him, and ditch those who might have a flicker of interest in favor of, say, one of those models or actresses.
Hello Ladies is essentially a half hour of Stuart failing miserably, and after watching four episodes sent by HBO (the pilot being the funniest, mostly because you don’t yet know that it’s going to keep being a repeated cycle of rejection and embarrassment), it’s clear this cringe-comedy trend has been around too long. If Merchant can’t make it funny (and Gervais does no better in his even darker Netflix series Derek), then there’s little to hope for.
In fact, after watching four episodes of Hello Ladies and soaking in Stuart’s failure, ineptitude, rejection and humiliation, the thought occurs that maybe David should also keep Curb on the sidelines for longer. Too much of a painful thing begins to just be, well, torture to watch. Hell, it’s one thing for Stuart to be the victim of his own clueless social skills, over-ambition for women out of his range and his knack to ruin every glimmer of hope he’s given, but as a character he’s not even nice to his so-called friends — the recently separated Wade (Nate Torrence), who is still so emotionally frail he cries about his ex; and Kives (Kevin Weisman), the wheel-chair bound “nemesis” of Stuart’s, who is far better with the ladies than Stuart will ever be (though we have no idea why the two of them don’t like each other).
The saddest part may be wanting so desperately for Hello Ladies to be funnier or to tap into Merchant’s seemingly endless ease at being hilarious. But by plowing this familiar ground again, hope turns into a burden of endurance.
The best elements of Hello Ladies is the melancholy aftermath, as Stuart, awash in rejection and disappointment, drives his convertible old-school BMW around Los Angeles at night, looking defeated. Where the cringe-heavy parts just seem overly familiar, the more depressing, unvoiced emotional fallout could still be an avenue to mine (though the likely course would lead Stuart and Jessica to realize they care about each other and work best when laughing at the absurdity of entertainment industry overkill).
Who knows if that’s a plot point that will ever be reached – and maybe it would end up too sappy and predictable for Merchant’s tastes. But going down this same road of endless embarrassment and humiliation for sad sack characters is, at this point, no less well-worn and predictable.
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