Nate Torrence, Stephen Merchant and Kevin Weisman (from left)
With his huge eyes and Cheshire Cat grin perched atop a gangly 6’7” frame, Stephen Merchant looks as if he just stepped out of a Wallace & Gromit short, but he’s best known for his frequent and very memorable collaborations with fellow Brit Ricky Gervais, including the original UK version of The Office, as well as such HBO series as Extras and Life’s Too Short.
Merchant’s finally flying solo, however, in Hello Ladies, a very funny new HBO sitcom premiering Sunday night. Very much in the laugh-while-you-cringe vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm and his collaborations with Gervais, this new comedy series – which Merchant co-wrote and directs – casts him as Stuart Pritchard, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Old Blighty. A web designer, Stuart lives very comfortably in a Southern California dream home that includes a guest house he rents out to his friend Jessica (Christine Woods), a neurotic out-of-work actress.
Stuart is lonely, though, and more to the point utterly baffled why he can’t seem to be embraced by L.A.’s beautiful people – or, as Stuart would put it, “L.A.’s OTHER beautiful people.” Like David Brent, the character Gervais played in The Office, Stuart is tragically un-self-aware. He struts with ill-advised confidence into the latest L.A. hotspot in search of the hottest babe in the room and, even on those rare occasion when he makes a tentative connection with one of them, he’s constantly casting his eyes around the place to make sure a hotter chick hasn’t wandered in.
His frequent companion is Wade (Nate Torrence), a schlubby co-worker who’s deeply in denial that his marriage of 11 years is cratering. Wade considers Stuart to be his best friend, but Stuart actually is there for Wade only when it’s convenient for him. Stuart is, in fact, something of a jerk, although Merchant smartly emphasizes the utter absurdity of this human scarecrow thinking he’s God’s gift to women. Even at his worst, Stuart is still a nicer guy than the third member of his social trio, Kives (a hilariously obnoxious Kevin Weisman, Alias), a wheelchair-bound dirtbag who uses his disability to score points with beautiful women.
Hello Ladies uses the Hall & Oates song “Alone Too Long” for its main theme, and that’s a recurring motif in the series. Stuart’s aggressive and incredibly inappropriate attempts to chat up potential girlfriends invariably go awry, and more often than not – OK, make that “always” – he winds up either alone at home eating a microwaved late-night snack in front of the TV or commiserating with the equally depressed Jessica.
This is Merchant’s first leading role in a comedy series (he had a recurring role as Gervais’ incredibly incompetent agent in Extras) and his performance hits all the right notes. HBO only sent out two episodes for preview, but they were strong enough to make me look forward to future half-hours.
On a semi-related note, Netflix recently started streaming Gervais’ most recent TV series project, a dramedy called Derek, in which Gervais takes the title role as a developmentally disabled 49-year-old man who works as a volunteer at the Broad Hill Residential Care Home for the Elderly.
The cause of Derek’s mental disability is left undefined, but he has the mind of a child, which makes him an ideal companion for the very senior citizens in the facility, where his kindnesses are much appreciated by Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the saint who runs the place for a criminally low salary, and Dougie (frequent Gervais cohort Karl Pilkington), the handyman and Derek’s landlord.
Before Derek premiered last year in Great Britain, Gervais came in for some criticism from people who feared the normally caustic comic would be making fun of disabled people, but I’ve watched all seven episodes in season one of Derek and it’s obvious Gervais is working on the side of the angels. When the show gets things right, as in one episode where we watch the elderly residents nodding off in their chairs and the screen changes to scenes from their youth in the form of grainy newsreels, Derek is a thing of beauty.
For me, though, this comedy-drama too often slides into mawkishness, especially in the season finale, in which Derek is reunited with the alcoholic father who abandoned him and his mother when Derek was a child. At times like that, the bathos is so overwhelming that I couldn’t help thinking that Gervais must be pulling our leg, especially with the show’s solo-piano musical soundtrack, which sounds like a Windham Hill sampler CD got stuck on autoplay.
If your tolerance for sentimentality is higher than mine – and frankly, it probably is – by all means check out Derek. If you can wade through the syrupy moments, you’ll be rewarded with one of the very few scripted TV shows anywhere that focuses on two segments of the human race – the disabled and the very elderly – that are virtually invisible elsewhere.
Ricky Gervais as Derek
Megan Boone and James Spader
Tonight at 10 p.m., NBC and CBS face off with rival, high-profile suspense dramas. Of the two shows, the better one by far is on – I cannot believe I am writing this – NBC.
That’s right. The Peacock Network, which has had a dismal time when it comes to launching new hits in recent seasons, has a potential game-changer in The Blacklist, a new action thriller that marks the very welcome return of three-time Emmy winner James Spader to series television. It’s not only the best drama NBC has fielded in a long time. It’s also one of the best shows of the new fall TV season.
As the series opens, fresh-faced Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (newcomer Megan Broome) is heading off to start her first day as an FBI profiler in the agency’s headquarters when she and her bookish husband (Ryan Eggold) are startled to see a helicopter and several unmarked cars swarming their building. Liz is spirited away to a classified location, where FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) drops a bombshell: Raymond Reddington (Spader), a fugitive at the top of the 10 Most Wanted list, has just walked into the Washington, D.C., headquarters and surrendered. He has a proposal for the FBI, but only if he can talk to her. Liz is baffled. She and Reddington never have met before, nor do they have any personal connection she knows of, yet in their very first meeting, he freaks her out with intimate knowledge of both her and her family, stuff that not even the FBI knows about her. More important, though, he tells her that a dangerous Serbian terrorist has entered the country intent on settling an old score with a highly ranked Pentagon official. A little girl’s life hangs in the balance, and he wants to help Liz stop this potential catastrophe.
Tonight’s pilot episode is a tense hour that follows Liz and her colleagues as she tries to stop the terrorist from carrying out his plot, but more than that, it sets up the big questions at the heart of the show: Why is Reddington obsessed with Liz? What does he want with her? How can she keep her surprisingly dangerous new job from upsetting her life with her new husband, who is intent on adopting a child?
The psychological connection between Reddington and Liz obviously echoes the eerie relationship between Agent Clarice Starling and mad genius Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, seasoned with the fascinating ambiguities that Alias used to do so well. The Blacklist doesn’t feel like recycled goods, however. It just reflects the work of a creative team that knows how and when to borrow from the best.
I’ll leave the show’s many other surprises for you to discover on your own, but let me just close by reporting that Spader’s work in this show just may be the best performance of his career. It’s scary, sly, charming, diabolical and very funny. It would be a huge mistake to miss him, and this very promising new series.
CBS’ new Hostages, on the other hand, set off my Hogwash Detector within the first five minutes, as I watched sharp-jawed FBI Agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) shoot and kill a bank robber disguised as a hostage after Duncan noticed – from a distance of 40 yards or more – that the bad guy’s shoes didn’t match his suit. Clearly he discarded the notion that he was merely looking at an innocent hostage with no fashion sense. A relatively minor style misstep and Duncan (correctly, if inexplicably) pegs this stranger as being worthy of multiple bullets to the chest.
That early scene actually has nothing to do (I think) with the main story, which revolves principally around Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), a gifted surgeon at fictional Maryland College Hospital who has been selected (for what turn out to be crass political reasons) to remove a suspicious lump from the lung of the American president (James Naughton). Ellen is honored but not terribly intimidated by the assignment. After all, it’s a routine procedure.
Or at least it was until Ellen returns on the eve of the surgery to the posh suburban home she shares with hubby Brian (Tate Donovan) and their two teenage kids. Ellen doesn’t know that her magazine-ready life is concealing a lot of secrets. Brian’s business is failing, and he’s involved in an extramarital affair. Daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) has just discovered she’s pregnant by the secret boyfriend she sneaks out each night to see, and clean-cut son Jake (Mateus Ward) is seriously in debt to a dangerous drug dealer.
As if all that’s not enough, Ellen comes downstairs after a pre-dinner shower to find a home invasion in progress, with her family held at gunpoint by four persons wearing ski masks. Their leader pulls Ellen aside to deliver an ultimatum: The intruders will kill Ellen’s family unless she takes steps to ensure that the president dies on the operating table the next morning.
I’m going to stop this recap of the pilot here in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I won’t even reveal how Duncan and Ellen’s story lines intersect. I will say, however, that, even though CBS is describing Hostages as a “limited series,” I frankly see no way the show will be able credibly to stretch out this situation over several weeks.
Then again, given that scene with Duncan and the bank robber, apparently credibility isn’t going to be a huge component of this show (which, for what it’s worth, is beautifully filmed and directed).
Toni Collette, Mateus Ward, Tate Donovan and Quinn Shephard (seated from left)