Stephen Merchant in HBO's "Hello Ladies."

Stephen Merchant in HBO's "Hello Ladies." Credit: HBO

COMEDY SERIES "Hello Ladies"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday night at 10:30 on HBO

REASON TO WATCH Ricky Gervais' longtime comedy partner strides out on his own.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Stephen Merchant co-created the UK's original "The Office" and "Extras," so he knows overreaching ego, awkward efforts and bruised dignity. Now this British beanpole -- Gervais' on-screen sidekick in "Extras" and "An Idiot Abroad" -- makes himself the center of attention/humiliation, playing an immigrant Los Angeles Web developer trying to ingratiate himself with Hollywood's beautiful people.

It's not going well. Launching small talk with hot chicks in cool bars, Merchant's hapless Stuart is prone to discuss "the suicide capital of America" when he isn't chiding his miserably separated wingman Wade (Nate Torrence) that there's "no need to bring up abortion." At least Stuart's female housemate Jessica (Christine Woods) can get lucky, even if it's with her use-'em agent/sleepmate. Formerly an actress, she now wants to make Web series, and surrounded by superficial pretty people, she yearns to be, well, something more.

Three lost souls, see how they run.

MY SAY "Hello Ladies" is awfully obvious, shooting phony fish in the Hollywood barrel. And the show mirrors its protagonist, trying entirely too hard. Wingman Wade doesn't just chitchat with club chicks about his wife, he pulls out a laptop to show photos. (How did mopey dumped men become such a drippy fall-season trope?) In next week's episode, Jessica wants to transform girls' night out with her model/actress friends into "a salon." So she holds movie night with the 1920s Russian silent-film tract "Battleship Potemkin."

Merchant is a likable presence, but he comes off here as Gervais-lite, unable to match his mate's mastery at playing oblivious buffoon. We've seen this show before, in fresher settings, with stronger comic structure -- from, in fact, the same creators: Merchant and American "Office" writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky.

BOTTOM LINE No thanks, gentlemen.


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