Review: Stephen Merchant flies solo with HBO's 'Hello Ladies'
When you work with the right partner — especially one whose skills and interests don't completely overlap with yours — you can do more than make yourself twice as good. If it's the right match, you can be exponentially as good as you'd be on your own. The problem, of course, in working with a partner who likes to do different things than you is that the partnership may not last, and then you see how the sum of your individual parts matches up with the former whole.
Paul McCartney wanted to make mass appeal pop songs; John Lennon wanted to experiment. Robert Townsend wanted to do sincere explorations of the black entertainer's role in a white business; Keenan Ivory Wayans just wanted to make people laugh. Big Boi wanted to keep making rap albums; Andre 3000 wanted to do pretty much anything else. It happens. Sometimes, you get twice as much quality; usually, you don't. (I'd trade every single Wings song for just one more Lennon/McCartney composition on the level of, say, "We Can Work It Out.")
Since they co-created the original "The Office" a decade ago, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have been so intertwined that it's been hard to imagine them as having separate interests or areas of strength. Gervais was short and stocky, Merchant impossibly tall (6'7") and gangly, but otherwise they appeared two sides of the same coin as they worked on "The Office," then "Extras," "Life's Too Short," etc.
But Gervais has dabbled off on his own, co-writing and directing "The Invention of Lying" with another partner and recently creating and starring in "Derek" (which Netflix debuted earlier this month), in which he plays a developmentally disabled man who works in a nursing home. And Now it's Merchant's turn to fly solo with "Hello Ladies" — about an Englishman desperately trying to get lucky in Los Angeles — which debuts on HBO Sunday night at 10:30.
Watching the two series in close proximity, you can see the contributions each man made to the DNA of "The Office." "Derek" is melancholy to the point where I'm not sure it's accurate to call it a comedy; "Hello Ladies" has the familiar cringe-inducing humor. And neither aspect works entirely well without the other.
In particular, "Hello Ladies" is so much of a piece with both "The Office" and "Life's Too Short" — oblivious asshole keeps putting himself in humiliating situations because of an overinflated sense of self — that it's tiresome almost from the start. Merchant is still a master of comic construction — there's at least one moment in each of the four episodes I've seen that had me laughing heartily, even at punchlines I could see coming, because he's just that good at designing humorous scenes — but it's all in service of a character I could not wait to get away from, and whose friendships with the other characters (including Christine Woods as the struggling actress who rents out his guesthouse, Nate Torrence as a recently-separated best friend and Kevin Weisman as a guy in a wheelchair who's every bit the stud Merchant imagines himself to be) make absolutely no sense. On "The Office," the other characters had no choice but to spend time with David Brent. Merchant does not have a captive audience here, and the series drags out every single misstep he makes. There's a running gag in the third episode in which Merchant tries to get out of buying his date an expensive meal at a restaurant that's among the more difficult things I've had to sit through in a while — and I've seen two episodes of "Dads."
I don't know that "Derek" is entirely successful, but I at least appreciate what Gervais is trying to do with it, and also that he's not just repeating the same material over and over again. "Hello Ladies" (which Merchant made in partnership with American "Office" alums Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) shines a light on Merchant's comic role in the partnership, but it lacks the humanity of most of his earlier work, and it's in service of a character type who's long since outlived his usefulness.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org