The best thing about comedies on HBO is that they’re allowed to have their own style, their own mood as distinct as that of any Hollywood auteur. From its introduction alone, there’s no mistaking Hello Ladies for any other comedy, network or otherwise, and there’s an immediate sense of melancholy to the color palate and distant framings. Comedy will always be to a certain extent frenetic, and Stephen Merchant and the rest of the cast certainly have their moments of lively faux-joviality, but the overall feeling of Hello Ladies is one of bleak loneliness. The show laughs at the existential plight of its characters as they teeter around the void, and despite its glittering setting of fancy clubs and beautiful L.A. houses, it’s every bit as bleak as the world of The Office. Merchant and Gervais have created many good shows since The Office, but Hello Ladies is the first since that initial burst of creativity that has the possibility to be great.
Which isn’t to say that the first episode, “Pilot,” will blow anyone away, but more importantly it sets up a world and a feeling. The lights are low and the cast is now in their mid-to-late 30s. One of the main characters is recently divorced; another has never been married and spends his life searching desperately in clubs where he stopped fitting in a decade ago, while a third calls a man for sex even when she knows he has no interest in her for anything else. It’s a superficial world, but the neon lights only serve to disguise the pain.
“Pilot” does everything a pilot should, introducing us to the cast and the central dilemma of its characters while offering up a typical plot. Nothing to write home about, but the execution of every one of these parts is excellent, with no unnecessary exposition or forced situations. Stuart (Merchant) asks a girl out and meets her and her friends at a club with his own friends. It goes awfully, and at the end of the night he’s alone and embarrassed. There’s nothing that moves the characters forward, and that’s essentially the point. The lack of progress, the lack of any sort of hint that these characters’ loneliness will be abated, is where the darkness comes from.
Hello Ladies is still recognizably a Stephen Merchant project, and not just because he’s the star. Stuart is, unsurprisingly, similar to David Brent, and likewise he’s the central subject of the show’s ridicule. He’s a blowhard who doesn’t value his friends or his co-workers, and it doesn’t take long to see that his loneliness comes in large part from this refusal to treat anyone in his life with respect. Yet the show has it both ways, and while he’s a miserable, ugly human being, he’s also in pain. His life has become an endless succession of dinners alone in front of the television, and he’s desperate to even speak with a man he identifies as cool.
There are many directions Hello Ladies could go from here, more bad than good, but the sense of mood is so strong in this first episode that it’s impossible not to see the show’s potential. Merchant directed this first episode himself, and it’s obvious that this is a passion project, not just an experiment or a lark like some of his work in the past. I can’t say that Hello Ladies will live up to this early promise, but I can say that the sure-handed writing and directing of this first episode was more than just impressive; it was moving. No one doubted that Merchant could do another good comedy, but after years of pretty good shows that coasted on his and Gervais’ joke-writing skills, it’s surprising to see him behind such an ambitious effort again. Needless to say, Hello Ladies may be the most exciting comedy debut of the season, if not the year, even if it’s yet to be seen whether it can live up to this early promise.