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Hello Ladies: Season One

Stephen Merchant tries to charm the ladies in Hello Ladies. [Photo: HBO]

Hello Ladies: Season One 2.5 out of 4 star2-5

Hello Ladies takes its title from the consciously lame come-on favored by its hero, Stuart (Stephen Merchant), a tall, lanky Englishman searching for the girl of his dreams in Los Angeles. The show's best joke, and one of the reasons it may be worth seeing through its early, pronounced signs of growing pains, is that his dream girl is the same mythical creature who often appears in the fevered fantasies of many sexually or otherwise intimately inexperienced men for whom a woman is nothing but an accessory toward realizing an eventual glorious reinvention from social ne'er-do-well to...what? Stuart, like many men of this sort, doesn't know exactly; he just knows he doesn't want to be himself, and that resulting desperation renders him almost impossible to be around anytime he attempts to fashion himself as "on the make."

Merchant and co-creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky's ambitions here might not be initially apparent, but they've set a tricky challenge for themselves. Stuart's methods of hitting on ladies are beyond cliché, and he knows that, but his postmodern approach to reveling in these clichés is also cliché, and Merchant and his collaborators clearly know that too. So in order to distinguish itself from the endless stories of white-guy patsies with poon on the brain, the series must somehow work as a postmodern parody of the way we've been groomed by pop culture to hide our desires—themselves mostly products of pop-cultural brainwashing—behind layers of increasingly tedious postmodernism.

Hello Ladies sustains this ambition about half the time, which is actually a pretty good ratio for material this well-worn. Merchant is strikingly unsentimental about his character, who isn't a plucky nerd in the tradition of a John Hughes, Jon Favreau, or Judd Apatow hero, but a dick who's plagued by embarrassing fantasies of supermodels who must simultaneously conform to his physical and mental snobberies. Stuart isn't single because women don't understand him (which is the insulting implication of most nerd-empowerment stories), but because he isn't open to meeting real women on terms that indicate compassion and experience with life as it's actually lived.

The series still leans far too hard on the same old kinds of social-ineptitude routines that Merchant helped reinvigorate in his collaborations with Ricky Gervais: Stuart brags about a limousine to a bunch of hotties only to see the limo struggle with an embarrassingly belabored U-turn, rather than charging off gracefully into the sunset; he offers to buy a hottie and all her friends' drinks, and her group is revealed to comprise half of the club's patrons; his shirt is doused, embarrassingly revealing the condom he idiotically tucked into his front pocket (okay, that one's pretty funny).

But Hello Ladies is still worth rooting for because Merchant's compassion doesn't feel like a put-on, unlike Gervais's of late. There are images of Stuart eating alone and watching TV after a night of humiliating himself and exploiting others that gracefully elaborate on the despair that fuels his antics, while effectively upsetting the predictable stasis into which the series often threatens to settle. There are also a few promising supporting characters: Jessica (Christine Woods), an attractive struggling actress who rents a room from Stuart and clearly represents the relationship he can have with women when he gives his posturing a rest, and Kives (Kevin Weisman), a wheelchair-bound partner-in-crime who does well with the ladies because he's confident, good-looking, and treats them as if he's actually interested in spending time with them. Even the often dull Wade (Nate Torrence), a buddy of Stuart's who's grappling with a recent separation from his wife, has a moment of startling poignancy when he asks to sit in the front of a limo with the driver so he can weep without fear of ridicule. It's a bumpy ride, but at its best, Hello Ladies understands the demoralizing fear that turns so many men into insufferable jerk-offs.

Cast: Stephen Merchant, Christine Woods, Nate Torrence, Kevin Weisman Airtime: HBO, Sundays @ 10:30 p.m.

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