While the fate of Stephen Merchant's "Hello Ladies" remains in the hands of HBO, which has yet to renew the show, it's easy to see why they got in business with the 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. He's a modestly successful web designer who chases women far out of his league and is most often 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 the 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 and writes and directs 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. And Nate Torrence strongly enacts the tough road facing his character 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 comprised of repeated riffs where Stuart finds 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 but never seems to have any money..is he a skinflint or genuinely, perpetually broke?). He then completely derails the possibility of any relationship potential by stalking Annie after their second date, in order 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 unadventurous nature of the material seems far more suited to network television. In fact, if the few instances of swearing and nudity were to be cut, it could easily fit right alongside shows like "How I Met Your Mother" or "New Girl" in prime time.
Between this series and stints in the films like "Hall Pass" and "I Give It A Year," Merchant has navigated 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 onscreen, which are usually variations on "awkward" and "socially inept" with but contain 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]