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Review: 'Hello Ladies' Season 1, Starring Stephen Merchant

by Kevin Jagernauth
November 18, 2013 12:07 PM
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HBO/Jaimie Trueblood

While the fate of Stephen Merchant's "Hello Ladies" remains in the hands of HBO who have yet to renew the show, it's easy to see why they got in business the with comedian/actor/writer/director in the first place. He's a longtime collaborator with Ricky Gervais, and the pair already have had two underrated shows hit the network — "Life's Too Short" and the animated "Ricky Gervais Show" — and given their track records ("The Office," "Extras") it doesn't seem to be too much of a risk to see what Merchant can cook up on his own. On the face of it, a comedy about a single Englishman living in Los Angeles trying to find love is ripe with possibility. But as I wrote in my preview of the series in September after watching the first two episodes sent to press, the result was "cartoonish and empty" and little has changed with the season one wrapping up last night. (Obviously, spoilers ahead).

While cringe-worthy comedy has been the expert domain of both Merchant and Gervais, David Brent and Andy Millman were also well drawn characters, with a core of humanity that made them sympathetic even at their most repugnant. But after eight episodes, it's unclear why we should feel anything for Stuart Pritchard, a situation not helped by his rather thin characterization. The modestly successful web designer chases women far out of his league, generally purely motivated by looks rather than personality, clearly evidenced when he begins a fledgling relationship in the latter part of the season with the beautiful but dim model Kimberly (played by Heather Hahn, who you might remember was mocked in "Bruno"). But the character and Merchant never deviate from that one single note. Devoid of anything resembling a backstory, Stuart is an unchanging, 6’ 7” tower of ineptitude which certainly provides comedic highlights, but nothing on level of Merchant's previous TV creations.

This issue of Stuart's one-dimensionality becomes more apparent when the supporting characters of "Hello Ladies" are granted bigger emotional arcs to play against. Stuart's tenant/friend Jessica (Christine Woods) struggles to make it as an actress, writing and directing her own web series, while caught up in a professional-with-benefits relationship with her agent Glenn (Sean Wing) and a competitive battle royale with her frenemy Amelia (a solid Jenny Slate). Just when things are at their lowest, she manages to nab a lead role on "NCIS: Los Angeles," a potentially life and career changing gig....only to swiftly lose it after one week, due to poor testing. This is rich comedic and dramatic stuff and Woods makes the most of it. So too does Nate Torrence utilize to strong effect the tough road facing his Wade, Stuart's best friend who is trying to navigate a bruising divorce with a wife he still loves deeply. When he makes the decision in the final episode of the season to finally remove his wife's picture from his phone, it's a touching moment, one that closes the loop on one chapter of his life, while tentatively opening the door to a new one. If only Merchant had the opportunity to stretch Stuart in the same ways as well.

Instead, most of the eight episode first season are repeated riffs on Stuart finding ways to trip himself up in various social settings. In "The Date," Stuart's outing with gym counter girl Annie (Lindsey Broad) — a woman who actually likes him — at an expensive restaurant reveals him to be a cheapskate or nearly broke as he continually maneuvers to order the cheapest items on the menu. (A side issue of the show is that Stuart's financial situation is never made clear as he lives and works from his gorgeous home, and even has a hired employee, but never seems to have any he a skinflint or genuinely, perpetually broke?). He then completely derails the possibility of any relationship potential by stalking her after their second date, to find out who she had been texting the entire time. In "Pool Party," Stuart manages to get himself barred from his own exclusive, model filled bash after leaving early, convinced no one of worth would show up. Finally, in "Long Beach," one of the season's most wackily improbable scenarios, Stuart goes on a terrifying roadtrip in search of easy women with the tough, macho men renovating the roof of his guest house.

Again, conceptually at least, there is territory that could be fresh but the writing team of Merchant, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky have nothing fresh to bring the table. A running gag in "The Date," which finds Stuart explaining to his employee Rory (Kyle Mooney) his strategy for texting Annie, feels like a tired update on when to call a girl from "Swingers." Whether you like "Girls" or not, it has radically redefined the boundaries where shows about relationships, sex and dating can go, making Stuart's mild transgressions feel positively quaint in "Hello Ladies" (meanwhile, the showbiz world elements revolving around Jessica are simply "Entourage"-lite). In fact, one wonders why it's on HBO at all, as the rather unadventurous nature of the material seems far more suited to network television. In fact, cut out of the few instances of swearing and nudity, and it could easily fit right alongside stuff like "How I Met Your Mother" or "New Girl" in prime time. The low stakes ambition of "Hello Ladies" might even be a better fit there.

Between this series and stints in the films like "Hall Pass" and "I Give It A Year," Merchant has been trying to navigate a career outside of his association with Gervais with mixed success. He's undoubtedly a gifted writer, but the intelligence and surprising complexity he's shown in that capacity have yet to be translated to the characters he plays on screen, who are usually variations on "awkward" and "socially inept" with little depth. So it goes with Stuart Pritchard, a superficial, horny, single man trying to bed the kind of women who appear in magazines in the socially cutthroat world of Los Angeles, where status is everything. But what's so special and unique about his situation versus any other man in the sea of singles trying to land a big fish? "Hello Ladies" has yet to the make case and if it does manage a second season, here's hoping Merchant and company give us a reason to care about Stuart's romantic woes beyond being mildly diverting for thirty minutes. [C]

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  • Steve | June 28, 2014 8:28 AMReply

    Well written article but the reviewer misses so many of the good and often great things about the show. By season end it had really found its flow. The reviewer want everything revealed in 6 x 22 minute episodes. Now that's stupid! It appeared to be going somewhere potentially great. We all loved it.

  • M | December 29, 2013 12:13 PMReply

    The first season is very funny and Merchant has done a fantastic job both as creator and actor. I hope they renew it for second season.

  • Jim | December 9, 2013 10:58 PMReply

    This review is way to harsh. I have watched each episode 5 times and get laughs and chuckles every time. I have never seen all these other programs referenced. I only saw him in the movie Hall Pass. As a single tall man, who works as a web guy with a guy out of his home and who lives in southern calfornia I get it all. All the actors are charming to. Complexity of characters can only be realized with more episodes. Bring them on HBO!

  • Bowsky | December 9, 2013 9:06 PMReply

    God it's a good show. Give it a break and let the AUDIENCE decide if it gets picked up. Too many shows are cancelled cause of uptight critics who's jobs are to remember EVERYTHING about every other show out there and then they compare it and call it "tired" and a ripoff. Nothing is original anymore. Art is borrowed, recycled and spit back out. Period. It's entertaining, makes me laugh and it's only a little over 20 min, which is perfect for a quick laugh. And I like all the other characters. I think it's a tight show compared to all the other crap out there on network.

  • PEDANT | November 30, 2013 10:14 AMReply

    Kevin, to answer your question - Stuart is obviously reasonably well-off but just very, very tight with money, probably because he grew up without much (there's some backstory for you). Perhaps this is a cultural UK thing...

  • Dan | November 25, 2013 10:40 AMReply

    Stupid review. All the the questions and confusion the reviewer has about Stuart's character in the show never seemed remotely mysterious to me.

  • carol | November 21, 2013 3:06 AMReply

    I, too, was a bit put off at first. Being a huge fan of Stephen Merchant (since The Office), I have watched everything he's been in and done. I even used to get up before dawn on my one day off to listen live to the BBC 6Music show. Although your criticism is right to the point of where the weakness lies, the last episode gave me a little hope that this Stuart guy was someone in the midst of breaking through the myths he believed would make life worth living. I think they should give him another shot, bring in some interesting characters (I haven't warmed to the other players) and hit some real life road bumps that will truly test his character. It has to be more than what it has been, but Stephen Merchant can do most anything, so I hope he gets that chance.

  • Lena | November 20, 2013 5:34 AMReply

    It's a thoroughly entertaining show -- the amount of awkward situations Stuart and company can get into seem to be boundless, and each one is almost as entertaining as the last. But I agree with those who say that it doesn't seem to go anywhere from there - Stuart has so far proven to be a pretty one-note character with only one thing on his mind, and its attempts at drama sometimes fall a bit flat in the midst of the fact that almost all the characters are either completely unsympathetic jerks or over-the-top try-hards. The finale especially, with the can of mints, just wasn't convincing to me - he spends the whole season trying to lay a hot girl and when he finally gets the chance he decides to leave for the girl he should've been with from the start?

    I'm curious to see what they plan for the next season if there is one, because I don't know how much more they can stretch the concept. But, again, for all its worth I think it's a very good show, and think Stephen Merchant - should also mention Christine Woods - are hilarious.

  • Pinky | November 20, 2013 4:28 AMReply

    Agree with the majority of posters (not reviewers) on this topic. It's a terrific show. One of the best new shows on television. It's full of heart and deeply layered--you just have to WATCH the show (rather than solely listen to the spoken word) to see/hear it. The heart of the show is in the acting and the nuanced performances. Each of the characters (save perhaps Kives, except in a physical manifestation) is very vulnerable and sympathetic. The situations they find themselves in are hilarious. I'm truly bummed we only got eight episodes this season. Bring it back for more!!

  • ponyboy | November 20, 2013 3:09 AMReply

    spot on review. not HBO-worthy. shows at this level have to move the story forward; clever plot twists, character development, etc. this show didn't go anywhere; there was no movement. i liked the show enough to give a second season a try; but i really don't care if they make another season. C

  • Tha PIN | November 19, 2013 2:13 PMReply

    Its a great series, I never had time think about all the technicalities mentioned in this review, simply because I was laughing too hard. Merchant plays the character skillfully, a tad tacky at times but otherwise can't wait for season two.

  • dazza | November 19, 2013 7:06 AMReply

    To my recollection he always has money, he just hates dishing it out. I believe Merchant (and probably Gervais) have spoken about him having this characteristic as well. Knowing that going in probably helped identify it immediately. Really love that aspect of the character.

  • ugh, this guy | November 18, 2013 9:55 PMReply

    This show looks as insufferable as Merchant.

  • Ronnie d. | November 18, 2013 8:41 PMReply

    Great show, bad review.

  • Gorg | November 22, 2013 8:41 PM

    Honestly, this critic nailed it perfectly. Surprised he was so accurate.

  • james | November 18, 2013 5:48 PMReply

    i think its funny as hell. Wade especially.

  • Jim | December 9, 2013 11:04 PM

    @christian Interesting you mention Seinfield comparison. I was thinking the same.

  • Paul Holliday | November 25, 2013 11:02 AM

    I agree with the reviewer. In fact I think he's probably been a bit too generous. I must state that I'm generally a fan of Merchant and have always felt that his contributions to all Gervais/Merchant projects are greater than we might expect. However, this show seems to borrow - almost entirely - from these other shows, but without building-in any of the character empathy. The bottom line is that, as a viewer, I really don't want Stuart to win the day. The same goes for his housemate. Everything about the show is geared towards us being on his side but the big problem is that where he's supposed to be misunderstood, he's actually a total tosser. The other thing that irks me about this show - and I'm surprised no one else has picked up on - is that his relationship with his housemate is totally at odds with how he is with every other female in the show. This is not realistic. He's absolutely useless with female company, showing no signs of understanding women, making horrendous errors, being completely oblivious to their feelings. Then suddenly he's really switched on to how his housemate thinks - seeing through everything she does and calling her out on it. This is really clumsy - you just cannot be both of those people.

  • christian | November 19, 2013 11:42 AM

    Review is so wrong. Chemistry between the crew is as good as Seinfeld. One of my favorite shows. Give it a chance, I guarantee this guy doesn't know what he is talking about.

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