Like an early Woody Allen character stretched through a fun-house mirror, Stephen Merchant plays a haplessly girl-obsessed, amiable loser in “Hello Ladies,” an HBO series that’s occasionally amusing but as conceptually slim as its leading man. Best known as Ricky Gervais’ other half, Merchant’s go-it-alone comedy casts him as a British expat who sees L.A. as a world of opportunity, but mostly encounters awkward and embarrassing rejection. Despite clever and uncomfortable moments, “Ladies” falls short of the pay-TV plateau, and paired with the “Is that still on?” half-hour “Eastbound & Down,” doesn’t appear worthy of behind-the-velvet-rope access.
Merchant’s Stuart Pritchard is a Web designer, sharing his house with struggling actress Jessica (“Go On’s” Christine Wood), who is busy working on her own Web series. Seemingly oblivious to his shortcomings, Stuart cheerfully spends his time patrolling bars and trying to talk his way into posh clubs, bringing along his friend Wade (Nate Torrence), a sad-sack separated from and pining for his wife, as the world’s worst wing man. They even have a third partner in crime, the wheelchair-bound, foul-mouthed Kives (“Alias’ ” Kevin Weisman), who to Stuart’s chagrin invariably fares better in the wooing department than he does.
Working with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (ABC’s “Trophy Wife”), the lanky, pencil-thin Merchant does strike a comic figure, especially when paired with Torrence, creating an Abbott-and-Costello-like visual.
As in his work with Gervais, though, the emphasis here is on delivering awkward encounters steeped in humiliation, as Stuart keeps hitting on women who clearly have no interest in him. (He tells one of Jessica’s friends he’ll design a Website for her, saying, “I can be your Spider-Man.”)
A second half-hour has slightly more depth than the premiere, as the three guys try to turn a rented limousine into a night on the town, while Jessica endures a girls night with three actress friends, only to flummox them when she attempts to bring conversation about North Korea into their empty, diet-oriented blather.
Woods, in fact, might have the best sequence, which comes in the third episode, when an embarrassed Jessica goes to an audition for a Tampax commercial and runs into an acquaintance who’s there for the “Untitled Scorsese Project.”
Merchant isn’t bad in this solo venture, but as the Woody Allen reference makes clear, this is well-worn territory, and not the kind of stuff that can readily rise to pay-TV’s upper echelons without a fresh or distinctive take. Instead, the writing mostly settles for familiar L.A. stereotypes and situations, albeit while augmenting them with clever song choices. (It’s been awhile, one suspects, since anyone has heard Exile’s “I Want to Kiss You All Over” in its entirety.)
In a way, Merchant’s relocated character brings to mind the slogan for another strange visitor, Howard the Duck: “Trapped in a world he never made.” Stuart might have willingly chosen to become an L.A. exile, but like poor Howard, “Hello Ladies” is one of those ungainly birds that just doesn’t quite fly.