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
1954 | Comedy | NRSummary: Two talented song-and-dance men team up after the war to become one of the hottest acts in show business.Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen
1996 | Comedy | RSummary: Timothy Hutton plays a guy who returns to his hometown as he tries to figure out his next chapter in life; Uma Thurman and Natalie Portman are standouts as two very different female influences on his decisions.Director: Ted Demme
Cast: Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Noah Emmerich, Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman
1939 | Comedy | NRSummary: Greta Garbo is an icy Soviet agent who thaws in romantic Paris whilst on the trail of three Russian ex-pats and the Imperial Jewels they’re meant to be selling off. Keep an eye out for Bela Lugosi, in a great appearance.Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire
1957 | Drama | NRSummary: One of Federico Fellini’s best films, about a perpetually idealistic and romantic woman who dallies with a string of not-so-great men.Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Franca Marzi
2012 | Animation | GSummary: Trained in the skills of sea power, Pi the fish can fight a shark, sink a squid or batter any random predator that ever threatens his friends and neighbors on the reef. Unfortunately, being the only hero in town can take its toll, especially when a group of sharks declares that the end of the ree...Director: Mark A.Z. Dippé, Taedong Park
Cast: Drake Bell, Andy Dick, Busy Philipps, Jamie Kennedy
1999 | Documentary | RSummary: AMERICAN MOVIE is the story of filmmaker Mark Borchardt, his mission, and his dream. Spanning over two years of intense struggle with his film, his family, financial decline, and spiritual crisis, AMERICAN MOVIE is a portrayal of ambition, obsession, excess, and one man's quest for the American D...Director: Chris Smith
Cast: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels
1999 | Comedy | PG-13Summary: Charming romantic fantasy about a slightly stodgy British bookshop clerk who, through chance, strikes up a relationship with a glamorous American movie star. Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts are well-matched in this gentle romantic comedy.Director: Roger Mitchell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe
1985 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: This ‘80s story dreams of leaving Earth as two friends create a homemade spacecraft, and find themselves exploring stars far from home.Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Bobby Fite
2009 | Comedy | NRSummary: The employees of the parks department of Pawnee, Indiana work out problems with bureaucracy, political conflicts and their own personal shortcomings in the show that cemented Amy Poehler’s star status, and helped define careers for Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, and Aziz Ansari.Director: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur (creators)
Cast: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, Chris Pratt
Let Streaming Genie help you.