As it is in any long-standing relationship, the prospect of a little alone time can suddenly become an incredibly enticing proposition. Now that doesn't mean the individuals involved are headed for divorce court, or they've split in some sort of inharmonious fashion; it often just means that, for the sake of his or her own sanity a quick solo adventure can mean everything – especially in terms of one person's pursuit of creative freedom.
In the case of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais – a partnership that birthed The Office, Extras, Life's Too Short and, of course, The Ricky Gervais Show – the pair have now gone on to do new comedy series without the other. Gervais is handling the somewhat controversial Derek (which can be seen on Netflix), while Merchant has set up shop in L.A. to try his hand at American television on HBO, with the exercise in mortification known as Hello Ladies.
Merchant stars as Stuart, a British expatriate who has relocated to Los Angeles where he works as a web developer out of the house he shares with his tenant Jessica (Christine Woods), a – surprise! – struggling actress/writer in Los Angeles (one of the many stale stereotypical Hollywood tropes that pop up in the pilot).
Stuart spends most of his time trying to pick up women at local bars and clubs, and, on occasion brings his recently separated friend Wade (Nate Torrence) along as an inept wingman. Well, Wade would only be inept if he somehow hindered Stuart's chances with the ladies - but considering Stuart would have a better chance at landing a 747 with total engine failure than one of the many women he sets his bespectacled sights on, Wade's purpose as a wingman is actually to lessen the sting of rejection by assuming the blame for Stuart's repeated dismissals. In that sense, maybe he's actually a pretty great wingman.
That being said, the characterization in Hello Ladies is reminiscent of much of Merchant's earlier work with Gervais, in that the series focuses on mostly unlikable people. Being the lead, Merchant has given Stuart the lion's share of the objectionable character attributes. In addition to being cheap, he is generally oblivious to the feelings and emotional states of those around him; he cannot (or willfully refuses to) read plainly obvious cues in terms of body language, facial expressions or vocal tones; and he constantly barrels ahead with his own agenda like some selfish freight train without a brake. As a human being, Stuart's fairly unlikable and painfully deluded; as a character he simply verges on obnoxious time and again, as though Hello Ladies believes the tediousness of a person like that is the funniest thing in the world. Even Wade, who is essentially a nice guy whose wife Marion (Mad Men's Crista Flanagan) recently left him, is so pathetic and pitiful most of the time it's hard to pinpoint an actual positive characteristic or attribute.
But this isn't a negative aspect or even necessarily a criticism; it's merely pointing out the stylistic choice Hello Ladies has made with regard to how the show's writers want the characters to be perceived. As with any show, highlighting the shallow, sad or obnoxious qualities in someone's personality is likely to turn some people off; it's a challenge to keep the audience invested in unpleasant people because the reward, then, is typically to see them fail in situations where a more amiable character would be encouraged to succeed. In that sense, much of the humor is derived from making every situation as near to agonizingly uncomfortable as possible.
In fact, the humor isn't really the result of jokes in the classic sense, but rather the rapid escalation of an awkward situation; it's humor that's predicated on the continued humiliation of those we are watching, and, in that sense is fairly familiar to watching Gervais' David Brent attempt to gain the affections of those around him. Of the all elements in the pilot worthy of praise, it would be the show's willingness to aggressively drive the dialogue into awkward places, in seemingly the most inelegant manner possible. The writers are so good at this they manage to squeeze references to suicide, abortion and murder in the first two minutes. But again, it's the inappropriateness of what's being said and the context in which it is delivered that supplies the humor, not the aforementioned subjects themselves. Instead of making an insensitive joke about suicide or what have you, the joke comes from the fact that the topic is being brought up at all and demonstrates the writers' deft touch in handling such material.
Imagine the most unpleasant conversation you've ever had, one where you likely said something you shouldn't have. Instead of apologizing for the gaffe, you kept going almost like it didn't happen, or as though you weren't aware someone might take offense. All you wanted was a way for it to end, a way for the spotlight to somehow not be on you, and the only readily available option was to bury your own faux pas under a mountain of more words as quickly as possible, while you continued to smile like an idiot. That's a fairly good approximation of what the pilot for Hello Ladies is like.
It's hard to tell if the series will develop into something fans will become as obsessive about as, say, The Office, but for those inclined, Hello Ladies can be enjoyed for its manic energy and relentless pursuit of discomfort and humiliation of those in its cast. And, like all forms of comedy, it won't be for everyone, but that shouldn't discredit Merchant's and the others writers' skill at delivering the laughs in this manner, even if they are mostly nervous ones.
Hello Ladies continues next Sunday with 'The Limo' @10pm on HBO.
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