Sunday night’s premiere of Stephen Merchant's Hello Ladies was promising. Stephen Merchant, the doofy actor formerly of the British version of The Office, plays a web designer who stands as tall as a basketball player, but lacks game. But let’s get straight to his victims on the new HBO series.
The episode opens on Stuart and his sidekick, Wade, approaching two brunettes at a bar. The smooth talkers start off solid. Wade doesn’t waste anytime before bringing up abortion, and when Stuart runs out of material, he falls back on a fun fact: the suicide capital of America. The suicide foreshadows the cringe-worthy lengths Stuart subjects himself to in pursuit of women, which qualify as self-inflicted harm. The ladies quickly exit, Roe bails, and while this would conclude the scene in another show, the camera wisely lingers on Stuart who finishes his drink, and makes one last play.
It turns out Stuart has some trappings of the player he wants to be: he has a red sports car and a modern house. But, of course, this isn’t enough panty-dropping ammo, and he masters the most dejected look possible for someone driving a convertible. At the supermarket, slumping down, he dwarfs the glass doors of the frozen section, where he picks up his dinner staple: microwavable chicken wings. At home, Stuart transfers his need for acceptance onto the guy who’s been sleeping with Jessica, his tenant Glenn. Yes, the fact that the guy banging the only consistent female in his life wants to use his bathroom is just the thrilling human interaction he craves. “It’s all in there. Got the moisturizers, the lotions, run a bath if you want, mate,” he calls out to the man he envies.
Jessica, played impressively by Christine Woods, reports she’s working on a web series, and she’s writing it on… a typewriter? Anyway. Merchant feels dramatically less cartoonish here as he and Jessica make fun of each other. Glenn doesn’t really want Jessica though, and we’re instantly onto the will-they-won’t-they setup of Stuart and the woman without a delete button. This all makes Stuart’s ease with her tough to buy. Jessica’s pretty, she’s next door, and he’s desperate. If this were a conventional comedy, he would longingly glance at her when she wasn’t looking. Instead we get stunted dialogue suppressed with more TV and Stuart fixes his gaze on a Courtney.
An aspiring young actress, Courtney rehearses Jessica’s series at Stuart’s home office. Stuart at first creepily peers in, and then saunters in with fake swagger and a new look (fedora and scarf). He hooks Courtney with an offer to design her web site, and the naïve girl doesn’t seem entirely hip to Stuart’s advances. Or she doesn’t care because it’s all in the name of her web presence. “I can be your Spiderman,” he says. She doesn’t wince as he mimes casting a web, but we do. Jessica does everything in her power to stop them from making plans. At first, we imagine it’s to protect the actress from Stuart’s eager advances, but when Stuart confronts Jessica about cock blocking him, she shrugs “because it’s funny.” More on this later.
It’s not all Stuart flunking women. He and Wade have a hilarious hike when Stuart rejects the idea that he’s lonely defending his Christmas Day meal at a Chinese buffet. “Firstly, the food was delicious and the service was impeccable because there was no one else in there.” Friday night, Stuart has hope enough for both of them, “groin cloth” in shirt pocket on their way to the club. Wade’s friend Kives who uses a wheelchair joins. Kives, a douche bag, is the only one who scores. Props for making the guy with a disability the one to evoke the least sympathy, but must there be cuts to stock Hollywood footage sprinkled throughout?
Stuart’s learned that being supportive is his best shortcut into someone’s affection or at least a conversation. Accordingly, he assumes roles too helpful to dismiss 1) Joan Rivers and 2) a waiter. “You guys look great! Who are you wearing?” he asks Courtney and her friend. When he proclaims he’s buying the drinks, a girl advertises his generosity to a room of people. Cut to Stuart thumbing 18 drink orders into his phone to impress a girl who barely recognized him at first. When someone insists on the good liquor he starts to curse them out, “You can f**k,” shifting his tone abruptly to please Courtney he adds, “all right thanks. I’ll make a note of that.”
Once Stuart serves the drinks, no one makes any effort to make room for the guy bankrolling the night. “It’s kind of tight.” Courtney discourages him. “Shall I try though at least?” He persists. It’s a line indicative of his stop-at-nothing determination. No one wants him. It’s still worth a shot though.
But the only way he can squeeze himself in is to prop himself onto a bar stool so he towers over everyone even more. Still he grins, crossing his legs, making the best of it. Can he endure any more humiliation? Yes, yes he can. He crashes onto the table smashing glass everywhere. No one helps him. This crushes our bones to watch, but he’s unwounded, reassuring the crowd with an offer to supply even more shots. Stuart returns home to find Jessica hiding from Glenn in his kitchen. Still, she declines Stuart’s offer to watch TV with an excuse equally as lame the one Glenn used on her before. So he eats wings alone.
Some critics have pointed out we’ve been here before. Yes, the whole “I’m a loser, you’re out of my league” well may have been pumped dry. This isn’t quite the same though. When Louie C.K. spills his self-trashing monologue at the bookseller, played by Parker Posey in the last season of Louie, she digs it. Larry David’s “I’m not a cool guy, but would you have dinner with me?” in Curb Your Enthusiasm also works. They get the girl. Merchant’s character doesn’t. He gets denied (predictably) but has a balloon clown’s capacity for getting knocked down and popping back up (less predictably). Every time he crashes and burns it’s like he has amnesia. He goes for it again. Stuart’s signature obliviousness to his own awkwardness adds humor and a pang of sadness to the proceedings. That he wrings laughs and aches out of you make this a promising start. We’ll still need more than a few packed silences between Jessica and Stuart to hold out hope for his prospects. But Stuart doesn’t need much to go on at all.