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Pop-culture representations of Hollywood come in two standard settings: dream factory or aspirational graveyard. That the first two episodes of Hello Ladies find the middle ground between those two modes seems like reason enough to recommend the show. In his first headlining effort without longtime collaborator Ricky Gervais, The Office and Extras co-creator Stephen Merchant depicts a Hollywood life that’s neither lavish nor desperate. The web-designing British expat Merchant plays in the show lives in quiet comfort—with the exception of the romantic gloom perpetually hanging over his head.
If a TV comedy can be said to have an atmosphere, then that comedy is probably airing on HBO, whose half-hour offerings in recent years have placed as a high a priority on mood as they have on laughs. To Kenny Powers’ airbrushed portrait of the American Dream and Hannah Horvath’s thrift-shop Greenpoint, the network adds Merchant’s blue Los Angeles, an outsider’s perspective warped by smog, nearsightedness, and the wounded romanticism of an AM Gold slow jam. The choice to score the show with instrumentals sound-alikes to its theme song, Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “Alone Too Long,” is an inspired one. Hello Ladies’ opening passages often feel as though they’re taking place between the grooves of a divorce-rock LP, its characters’ woes previously expressed in music made in L.A. by emigrants from points east: pre-Voices Hall & Oates or Piano Man-era Billy Joel. To paraphrase Joel, Merchant and his co-stars are telling a joke they called loneliness—but it’s better than joking alone.
There’s an intrigue to a comedy about loneliness—and Merchant’s Stuart Pritchard has certainly earned his extended bachelorhood. In a characterization that won’t be entirely unfamiliar to fans of his work with Gervais (or viewers who recognize the names of executive producers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky from the credits for the American Office), Merchant moves through Hello Ladies with great pomposity, his poor social graces merely an indication that his character thinks the world owes him a mate that could star in a luxury-hotel billboard. Hello Ladies hinges on pointing out how wrong he is for wanting this; the pushiest aspects of these opening episodes involve exposing the void behind L.A.’s swimming-pools-and-movie-stars façade. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but it is the right ground on which to construct slapstick-heavy, Rube Goldberg contraptions of comedic comeuppance into which Merchant can fall. And when the dust of his mounting embarrassment clears, the friends still standing by his side are the ones he’s most eager to ditch in order to hang out with the pretty people: Christine Woods, playing a struggling actress who rents an apartment from Merchant, and Nate Torrence, Merchant’s best buddy who’s recently separated from his wife. All three live in their own spheres of isolation, but only two of them are being set into a collision course of Sam-and-Diane magnitude.
Not that a Merchant-Woods pairing would spell the end of Hello Ladies—on the contrary, it would provide an increased sense of purpose to a series that’s so far composed of sad-bastard tableaus and setpieces of profound awkwardness. Still, there’s a suggestion within these first two episodes that there’s something at play beneath the surface here, that Merchant’s ladies’-man posturing is covering up for some deeper hurt, a personal revenge narrative pointing toward some injury that caused him to pull up roots and take leave for Los Angeles. He’s the avenging dork looking for the woman who’ll fix him, a search that thus far turns up microwave dinners and an empty limousine.
In some ways, Hello Ladies plays like the anti-Entourage. Set in the same area code, if not necessarily the same zip code, that show treated Los Angeles like El Dorado with a private airfield, a sanctuary where there was no problem Vinnie Chase encountered that couldn’t be solved by somebody else. At this point, at least, Merchant, Woods, and Torrence don’t have anybody else but each other—and their problems are of the kind that can’t be solved in a single phone call from Ari Gold. The show is vehemently non-escapist, presenting a vision of a city and a home life more recognizable to the average citizen of an American metropolis.
What will matter to later episodes is whether Hello Ladies ever perfects anything beyond that feeling. There’s at least one joke in the premiere episode that’s as mortifyingly hilarious as any Merchant has ever orchestrated, but the early goings of Hello Ladies are more amusing than they are funny. Getting more details on the characters should help that along; so far, it’s mostly Merchant, Woods, and Torrence’s performances that are drawing the light chuckles. Stuart himself is mostly just Merchant’s default comic persona; his self-perception, meanwhile, is summed up in the opening line of the show’s theme song: “Just a little boy lost looking for a lamb in the all-night city.” That’s a cool lyric and all, but it’s not a character. At least not yet.
Created by: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Stephen Merchant, Christine Woods, Nate Torrence, Kevin Weisman
Debuting: Sunday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom
Two episodes watched for review
Reviews of Hello Ladies by Molly Eichel will appear weekly.