A chill crawled over her skin as the woman made her way home, the grey light of an early autumn sunrise illuminating the concrete sidewalk before her as well as the expanding hollowness in her chest.
Stepping past the threshold of her front door into her warm apartment, she inhaled deeply to fuel a mournful sigh, wrinkling her nose at the scent of stale beer, fermented sweat and unidentifiable sourness wafting up from a blouse in desperate need of laundering. Gingerly placing her keys in the bowl by door, she crept inside so as not to awaken Ellen and Maggie… but of course, they were already up, seated on the couch and ready to greet her in their soft fluffy pajamas accessorized with sympathetic but slightly amused expressions.
“So,” Maggie began carefully, “I’m curious if you’re still naming ‘Hello Ladies’ as best new comedy.”
The woman’s hangover sharpened to a knife’s point jabbing into the center of her forehead. “Huuhhh,” she replied. “Ohhh.”
“Have you seen it yet?” Maggie continued, but the question was posed in jest. Clearly the wreck of a human standing before her had seen it.
From another corner of the room, Ellen piped in. “I did think of you when I watched,” she said, shaking her head in empathy. “So dangerous to give our hearts to a guy who gives good press conference.”
The woman managed a wan wave as took the final ten steps of her Walk of Shame to her bedroom, where she would lock herself in and think long and hard about her most recent bad decision.
While I suppose this could be some weird lost passage from Bridget Jones’s diary, that’s a similar scene to what played out in my head (and in a Twitter conversation) after finally watching Stephen Merchant’s upcoming HBO comedy “Hello Ladies.” A fairly disappointing new addition to the channel’s Sunday line-up– destined to look even paler in comparison to its spicy 10 o’clock-hour partner “Eastbound & Down” which, like, “Ladies” premieres Sunday Sept. 29 – Merchant’s comedy would not turn have merited much of my attention under normal circumstances.
The problem is, I had faith in it. Publicly-declared, blind (oh, so very blind!) faith. And faith, blind or otherwise, is a dangerous, foolish practice when it comes to evaluating the fall TV season.
You see, last month I was one of many critics asked by the Huffington Post (and my pal Maggie Furlong) to give my opinions about the fall TV season. What was the best drama? Worst new show? Star you’re most looking forward to seeing? Favorite new comedy?
What got me was the last one. You see, this season, like so many before it, is not exactly rich with recommendable half-hour chucklefests. In fact, I could only think of two comedies that could be considered shoo-ins for our Top 10 Picks list, and of those two, one was far and away the clear winner: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”. The Andy Samberg-vehicle is terrific for many reasons, the most important being not that Samberg was starring in it, but that its executive producer is Michael Schur, one of the guys who gave us “Parks and Recreation”.
Star power is all fine and good, but the talent behind the camera, plugging away in the writers room, tends to be the difference between a show’s creative success and its failure. A TV series’s odds of connecting with the audience are much harder to gauge and riddled with all kinds of X-factors, but at the very least looking at the creative sparkplugs under the hood will give you some idea of whether it is worth test driving beyond the pilot.
The thing is, if someone asks a bunch of people to give their individual opinions on a show, and everybody says the same thing, that’s not all that interesting is it? So, while everyone was mobbing Mr. Lonely Planet, a girl decided to consider other options and scanned the room. A girl saw a tall, impossibly gangly guy leaning against the wall. He’s funny. He’s self-deprecating. He’s Ricky Gervais’s writing partner, which is great, and unlike Gervais, a girl sees herself taking him home to meet Mother.
Hello, Stephen Merchant.
“Hello Ladies” was not available to screen for critics in July, but HBO did have a sizzle reel, and it was cut perfectly to make the show look hilarious and touching and sweet. Merchant took the stage and told funny tales from the dating front about his allegedly pathetic love life. Merchant’s body of work with Gervais includes “The Office,” “The Ricky Gervais Show” and “Extras” – all entertaining. A safe bet, right? I pronounced him “Hello Ladies” as my pick, because surely it would be better than everything that wasn’t “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” right? I wasn’t just ready for more episodes, I was ready for a commitment! In fact, I was so hooked on that Stephen Merchant feeling that I originally featured the show in our Top 10 Picks. The man really did have me at “Hello.”
Then I received the first two episodes for review, and I realized I had been wearing beer goggles.
Such clunky, juvenile sadness. Not pathos, sadness manifested in the form of depressing, awkward set-ups anchored by a character you want to like but who is addicted to creating his own misery for no discernible reason. Frankly, I’ve been at this long enough to know better.
The fact of the matter is, most of the shows rolling out in the next couple of weeks will not be around at this time next year. Worse, a number of the ones that survive aren’t going to be nearly as well-made as some of them that get cancelled. That Top 10 List we’re touting will be riddled with casualties, trust us. In case you doubt, consider that last year one of our top picks was “Last Resort” which starred Andre Braugher and was executive produced by the incredibly talented Shawn Ryan, who previously gave us “The Shield“. We maintain it was still one of last season’s best new series. It was gone by the end of January.
You will now notice, if you click on that link to the Top 10 list, that “Hello Ladies” is no longer there. My shame, however, still lingers. Instead, we moved up “The Michael J. Fox Show,” which has its flaws but is quite watchable and proves that Betsy Brandt has more versatility than we might have thought, and allows Wendell Pierce to show off his funnier side. Is it comedy gold? No. But it’s starting from a solid foundation and has room to grow.
So does “Hello Ladies,” for that matter. Fall shows are like insecure middle-schoolers at their first dance in that sense: little foals lacking coordination, standing on wobbly legs and painfully unsure of which opening lines will work. Like so many series, Merchant’s may yet develop into something work sticking with. I truly hope it does.
But I will not be keeping my evenings open until that happens. Sorry, “Ladies”, but this woman’s on to the next.
“Hello Ladies” premieres at 10:30pm Sunday, September 29 on HBO.