HBO’s comedies are sometimes woefully under appreciated, and it was with great disappointment that I read about the cancellation of my current favorite HBO comedy: Hello Ladies. Luckily for fans of the short-lived series, HBO approved a movie send-off.
The first season of Hello Ladies revolved around Stephen Merchant’s character Stuart, and his repeated attempts to find a supermodel who would sleep with him. When we left him at the end of the season, Stuart was finally presented with a choice to be with the model of his dreams, and he elected to walk away in order to comfort his friend and roommate Jessica, who had just been fired from a major role on a network TV series. It was a crucial turning point, in that both friends had navigated a series of humiliating encounters in their respective lives, and the season finale left them wondering, quite frankly, if their dreams were worth it.
When the film picks up, Jessica undergoes one more humiliating audition, and she decides that she can’t take it anymore. She quits her career as an actress and fires her agent/lover, Glenn. For his part, Stuart dutifully maintains a good relationship with the odious Glenn, given that Glenn has access to the exclusive parties and supermodels that Stuart wants. Glenn, who basks in Stuart’s toadying manner, delivers the goods, in the form of a breathtaking Russian model who takes a liking to Stuart. Time is of the essence for Stuart, for he will be receiving a visit from a woman who left him years ago for their mean-spirited co-worker, whom she subsequently married. The couple plans to visit Stuart in L.A., and Stuart wants to take the opportunity to make them regret breaking his heart. The Russian model is exactly the way to show them he’s moved on to bigger and better things.
Unfortunately for Stuart, his model friend cancels, and he’s forced to hire Jessica to pretend to be his girlfriend. In the end, their pretend relationship develops into a real sexual encounter, one that suddenly makes them each question whether their friendship has been irrevocably wrecked or whether it can develop into a deeper relationship.
Stephen Merchant, the creator and star, was one half of my favorite comedy partnerships. I had followed him and Ricky Gervais through their podcast, through The Office, Extras, An Idiot Broad, and their animated HBO show (which remains my all-time favorite HBO comedy). I was curious about what Merchant would do on his own, and he did not disappoint. As hinted during his previous work, Merchant is a man who does not fear alienating people. He can and often will be unpleasant in order to get across a point or a laugh. I suspect one of the reasons Hello Ladies did not catch on was that Merchant’s character was not designed to be endearing. He was intentionally off-putting, rude, cheap, sycophantic, and callous… and I loved that Merchant made him that way. I think that Merchant’s creation stands in stark contrast to the more lovable characters that populate American comedies, much in the same way that Gervais’ character in The Office was less viewer-friendly than his American counterpart.
According to Merchant, Stuart’s character was meant to be developed over several seasons. The show’s early cancellation left him with an imperative to deliver much of this arc in a film special. The question is: can such development be delivered convincingly in such a short time? My answer is: somewhat. Stuart’s development began when his feelings for Jessica made him leave a naked model on the beach in the preceding episode. Building from that, we can see that he feels at ease around Jessica, that his “true self” is kinder than he appears to others. But, unfortunately, the full turnaround for Stuart happens very late in the game, after a brutally honest exchange between Stuart and Jessica. Moments like this can serve as life-changing catalysts, but the cynic in me wonders whether anyone could make Stuart get over his need to show up the people who belittled and bullied him earlier in life.
The other characters are brilliant. As Jessica, Christine Woods is astounding. She is lovely and sympathetic, funny and vulnerable. Last season, Jessica toyed with the idea of finding greater fulfillment by expanding her mind. In this finale, she begins to pursue this goal by returning to school. What I love about Jessica is that while she is kind, she’s not above cattiness (here displayed in a hilarious scene with Nicole Kidman). Much credit here should go to the writers, as well (Stephen Merchant & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg). When I first heard about the concept of Hello Ladies, I was afraid that Jessica would be used in a Nice Guy™ narrative, that she would exist as a character to chastise women for dating douchebags while ignoring the great fellow next door. Luckily, Merchant was wise enough to bypass this by making Stuart the object of his condemnation and ridicule. The writing for Jessica is incredibly sympathetic towards her; the writers care about her wishes, her humor, her dignity, and her desires.
Stuart’s other friends are a mixed lot. Wade and Rory exist to cheer on Stuart, and they don’t have a lot going on. That being said, they are likable characters, and it was nice to see Wade get a resolution to his story after the sadness he endured last season. Stuart’s other friend Kives, on the other hand, continues to be pointless and unlikable. He never developed as a character, and I was glad to see little of him in the special. In the end, Stuart’s friends exist because Stuart needs to choose between them and the Hollywood A-Listers whose approval he desperately wants. They exist for Stuart’s character development, not as characters of their own.
In the end, Hello Ladies: The Movie was a great sendoff to the series. It developed and grew the characters. It also contained brilliant moments of Merchant’s trademark brutally biting comedy, including the aforementioned Nicole Kidman bit, as well as the funniest sex scene that I can remember. Even so, I mourn the series’ early departure, and the situations that could have been. Seeing Stuart make his way through Hollywood, and slowly worming his way into its inner elite, was a situation rife with comedic potential, particularly if he had ever achieved his dream of dating a model. I will miss Hello Ladies, but I am thankful for the closure we were given in its finale. Hopefully, we’ll see Merchant return to HBO with another project at a later date, for he brings a unique perspective to the table.
Hello Ladies is not yet available on blu-ray or DVD, but you can view it through HBOGo.