I've been watching Stephen Merchant's Hello Ladies since it debuted and have mixed feelings. As comedies go, it is only intermittently funny, and tends to rely too heavily on the tic of modern comedy (powerfully inaugurated in Merchant and Ricky Gervais's The Office) wherein awkwardness functions as a stand-in for humor and uncomfortable pauses often constitute the dramatic focal point of a given scene. In The Office, the development of social discomfort was often exquisitely managed and left us in a limbo state, suspended between laughter and projected shame. Here, though, it sometimes feels as if the writers just aren't sure where else to go with the scene.
But the show gets two things right. First, it captures a sense of the tantalizing, imagined social scene in Los Angeles, at least as it is pictured in the libidinous imaginations of lonely males. The action is placed against a backdrop of Sunset Strip clubs, brightly-lit LA boulevards, and Edward Hopper-esque all-night restaurants. There is always the sense that the real party -- inextricably linked with the allure of the music and movie businesses -- is happening just out of reach, and that amid the gorgeous gym-toned bodies and free-flowing chemicals, there is a Dionysian glee that we (in the persona of the show's hero, Stuart Pritchard, played by Merchant) can never reach, because we aren't cool enough, hot enough, rich enough.
Secondly, the show uses farcical situations to evoke a psychological principle that we are often our own worst enemies in life, staging scenarios in which our deepest fears about our own inadequacies are confirmed. At first, it seems that Stuart merely embodies the sin of Icarus -- he reaches too far, striving for women both physically and financially out of his league -- but it becomes apparent that there's more at work here. Merchant and his writers bend plausibility, allowing Stuart to all but attain seemingly-impossible goals -- usually involving hot-tubs, exclusive venues, and statuesque models -- the better to give him room to sabotage himself.
Again and again, through an ill-timed joke or a mistaken impulse of snobbery and control-obsession, Stuart conspires to create a situation in which he is the excluded one -- looking longingly over his shoulder at the models entering a hot tub at a party he's just been ejected from, or futilely trying to scale the fence of an apartment complex to get into his own party, which he has locked himself out of with a too-stringent ticket policy.
Stuart, in other words, is trapped in a hell of his own creation, doomed to roll the Sisyphean boulder up the steep social incline of LA night after night. His predicament isn't poignant -- he's too much of an ass for that -- but it is sternly instructive. The question is, can the show develop something resembling a character arc for its forlorn hero without breaking the engine that drives it?