[27 September 2013]
If you’re at the receiving end of that greeting, you’re probably annoyed. No one you’d really want to talk to would feel the need to use such a cheesy phrase. It signals that what’s coming is not an engaging or honest conversation, just more unimaginative efforts toward a hookup. In short, it’s a clear indication that someone is trying too hard.
All of this makes Hello Ladies the perfect title for Stephen Merchant’s new HBO series. His character, Stuart Pritchard, embodies a host of unfortunate characteristics: he’s cheesy, self-delusional, and far too eager, not to mention cheap. Yet, he’s not a loser, at least in daylight. A British transplant to Los Angeles, Stuart is a successful web developer, working on “some coding syntax that will make HTML look like fucking MS-DOS.” He has a nice house—with, he’ll let you know a little too early, a hot tub—and drives a vintage (or vintage-ish) car.
At night, though, Stuart transforms into something much uglier. Often, he’s accompanied by his two unlikely wingmen, Wade (Nate Torrance), who’s not over his recent separation from his wife, and Kives (Kevin Weisman), a wheelchair-bound lothario whose go-to pickup line is, “Dating, mating, or masturbating?” As this trio desperately tries to communicate with the young and attractive ladies of Hollywood, they meet with defeat after defeat. Throughout the first two episodes of Hello Ladies, the extreme efforts prove disastrous to Stuart, who has to go home and admit his losses to his friend Jessica (Christine Woods), an actress working on her own socially conscious web series while renting out Stuart s guest house.
Watching this whole process makes us cringe. In this, Hello Ladies is like other recent sitcoms that have put an uneasy twist on romantic-comedy tropes, for instance, The Mindy Project. But in Merchant’s hands, the “comedy” part of “romantic comedy” turns especially sour. Here, instead of the underdogs beating the odds and finding true love, they’re laughed at for even trying. Worse, they deserve it.
This type of humor is not unexpected, considering the talent behind the show. Merchant, Hello Ladies’ star, director, co-writer, and co-creator, is no stranger to uncomfortable comedy. He’s best known for his work with Ricky Gervais, namely, The Office (British version), Extras, and Life’s Too Short. While Gervais is absent this time around, Merchant is joined by co-creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who have demonstrated their facility with self-deceiving characters as executive producers of The Office (American version).
But at the same time that Stuart seems myopic and goofy, he and friends are also lonely, a feeling that pervades the show, coupled, of course, with their self-defensive insistence that they’re not affected by the solitude. When Wade pities Stuart for going to a Chinese buffet on Christmas, Stuart bristles. “Firstly, the food was delicious,” he says. “The service was impeccable because no one else was in there.” His response isn’t quite a joke, but it does make him look simultaneously hardened and clueless, a theme that recurs throughout these first episodes.
The show gets at this theme by making smart use of its Los Angeles setting. Telegraphing Stuart’s loneliness through takeout dinners and microwave meals only goes so far. Hello Ladies pushes that mood even further, showing the isolation he feels in crowds. As he heads out into the wilds of the city, rubbing up against velvet ropes and bottle service, his not quite earnest awkwardness also serves as an indictment of Hollywood superficiality and club culture. But as Stuart tries to become a part of this scene, throwing over a girl he was chatting up for someone hotter, then heading back to the first one, as she seems, on second thought, more of a “sure thing,” it’s obvious he’s unable to navigate any social nuances, such as they are.
He’s not the only one stymied by LA. In the second episode, Jessica tries to push her social circle by hosting an at-home salon, with plans for the group to listen to jazz music, discuss politics, and watch foreign films (her choice: Battleship Potemkin). Here she shows herself susceptible to another kind of artifice. When Stuart asks her to name her favorite jazz musicians, she responds with “The Loneliest Monk.” Still, her friends resist, preferring to discuss celebrity recipes they haven’t tried yet, but really want to.
The real tragedy—since most great comedies are underlined with tragedy—is that Stuart is quite charming when he’s not trying so hard to fit in. So far, Jessica’s been the only one who’s seen him completely unguarded, when he’s not on a mission to get laid. His conversations with Jessica are effortless, breezy, and full of good banter. One of the most enjoyable scenes of the premiere is a conversation between the two of them where Stuart’s quick reminder to lock the doors behind her descends into a disagreement about whether or not he’d have the arm strength to murder her—a grisly conversation that unfolds in the most affable way.
If this were a typical sitcom, these two would immediately be put on a will-they-or-won’t they course. It might happen in Hello Ladies, too. But the formula, and the romantic longing it engenders, seems all too comforting here. More likely, the show will find ways to keep them apart, if only to keep hitting the raw nerve exposed by their separation.