Hello Ladies, S01E04

by Joshua Gaskell

By Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky, and Lee Eisenberg
Four Eyes Entertainment, Quantity Entertainment, and ABC Studios for HBO
Sunday, 20th October 2013

The humour of Hello Ladies feels like quite well-trodden ground, and not only because it takes its name from Stephen Merchant’s 2011 stand-up tour. But that’s not to say that it isn’t trodden well here too, and why not reuse the name? Merchant’s juxtaposing of his physical appearance and Bristolian accent with a self-deluding bravado has been funny since his earnest ‘Hip-Hop Hooray’ feature on Xfm.

Episode Four begins in Stuart’s (Merchant’s) bachelor-pad, which is so swanky it makes you wonder whether American telly people find it easier to depict luxury because it saves them using their imaginations. (As the executive saith, shoot what you know.) In any case, Stuart uses his luxurious abode to bribe his two friends: Jessica (Christine Woods) gets his Wi-Fi code to let him go with her to a gay club (guess why), and Wade (Nate Torrence) gets access to the hot-tub as compensation for his and Stuart’s movie night being called off as a result.

In the next scene we’re in said gay club – did you guess why? Yes, because gay men get access to hot, unthreatened babes, and get to feel their boobs and stuff! Of course Stuart’s plan fails to get him in on the action: when he apes the good-looking gay men around him by grinding up against a hot chick she immediately turns round disgusted. Stuart’s reply is, I think, heartfelt on Merchant’s part, and takes us to the conceptual heart of Hello Ladies: ‘He was allowed to do it! What are the rules?!’

The scene in the club shows Stuart and Jessica’s friendship in its Seinfeldian aspect, i.e. cynical, convenient, unloving. They’re both desperately clawing at cool, at the in-crowd; Stuart to meet ladies, Jessica to further her acting career. Each uses the other to further their cause, but they’re both willing to say ‘fuck off’ at moments when a wingman is surplus to requirements. Through some tortuously embarrassing wheeling and dealing they secure invites to a glamorous party.

The party represents what they most desire, but their presence at it is not especially desired by the host or the other guests, so this scene is a continuation of the shallow social climbing theme. Again Stuart and Jessica team up to achieve their goals, and fail with the excruciating consequences we expect from this sort of comedy. Stuart makes a very bad toast and tells an inappropriate story about a boy at his school who was bullied to suicide, and Jessica performs a ludicrous tap-dance in a failed attempt to best her more-successful adversary’s party-piece (a song from West Side Story). Much of the humour comes from the Gervais-Merchant nexus of taboos, which essentially comprises the clauses of the 2010 Equality Act. Something is being said about a fine line, and the scene ends when the line is crossed: ‘That’s really offensive,’ complains an affronted gayman. Oopsy! ‘I think you should leave,’ intones the host.

Hello Ladies achieves its goal of setting our teeth on edge, but compared to a programme like Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback – another HBO sitcom about Hollywood narcissism – it does so without a great deal of depth. The Comeback used the mockumentary format as well as The Office did, to give a character enough rope with which to hang herself, which made it an absolutely relentless character-study (and watching it like chewing tin-foil). Hello Ladies is full of excruciating situations, but the characters aren’t well-rendered enough to reach that same pitch and comprise excruciating persons.

Moreover, the no-hugging-no-learning radicalism of Seinfeld (imagine a Friends in which they’re not really friends) dissolves at the end: Stuart and Jessica leave the party with nothing and we get to see the genuinely affectionate aspect of their relationship, as they commiserate their mutual humiliation.