Review: HBO's 'Hello Ladies' a cringe-worthy comedy that works

Stephen Merchant, the tall fellow sometimes found near Ricky Gervais (he co-wrote and co-directed "The Office" and "Extras," and costarred in the latter), has put himself out front in his own HBO series. Created with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (writers for the American "The Office"), it is called "Hello Ladies," and it is funny and disturbing in exactly the manner and proportions one would expect from his earlier works.

Merchant plays Stuart, a Web designer living in Los Angeles in circumstances that suggest this Web design is a career worth investigating. He has a sporty car and a nice little open-plan house-cum-office full of nice furniture, with a hot tub and a pool and a pool house, in which lives Jessica (the excellent Christine Woods), an actress of meager success and (in Hollywood terms) advancing years. Neither of them is happy; both affect to be fine.


Stuart's hopeful image of himself as a man of experience and sophistication is bolstered by the devotion of his fuzzy-headed assistant, Rory (Kyle Mooney), and his troubled friend, Wade (Nate Torrence), recently separated from his wife. Even as Stuart depends on the friendship, he regularly puts it aside when a more promising possibility comes along. That would be anything that lets him meet women, preferably models and actresses too young for him. Much of the series is a sort of riff on the fable of the Dog and His Reflection, wherein Stuart loses the good thing near at hand while grasping for an unattainable better one.

The end of Stuart's exertions is that he'll be humiliated — he'll be humiliated long before the end, in fact. But we are given clues enough that inside the idiot is a human looking for human contact. He dreams of returning home in a limousine "with my beautiful wife, who's a model, PhD in philosophy … and everyone I ever went to school with and all the girls that wouldn't ever go on dates with me, they come, they see the limo, they're 'Who's that? It's Stuart Pritchard — why'd we let him slip through our fingers?'"

This is the gamble of the comedy we call "cringe-worthy," balanced as it is on the fine line between likability and horror. We need to feel for the fool we watch force his foot down his mouth, to mark the uncomfortable expressions of ego as symptoms of some curable condition of the heart.

As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Stuart and Jessica, if not necessarily fated to be mated, are two peas in a pod, struggling for acceptance, tossing in comments from the edges of conversations they are not invited to join, putting up walls with their own desperation. It is classic stuff, really — the situation in which, in order not to seem a fool one does increasingly more foolish things and where the gesture meant to look insouciant ends in slapstick. The gangly Merchant, with his 6-foot-7 frame and serious spectacles, is highly adept at this — he is not quite made for this world. But he is for comedy.


'Hello Ladies'

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)