Hello Ladies and the “Michael Scott” Problem

Hello Ladies

Ricky Gervais once gave Steve Carell some insight into David Brent, the original BBC counterpart to Carell’s character of Michael Scott on The Office. He told Carell:

“If you don’t know a Michael Scott, then you are a Michael Scott”

Part of the reason The Office overcame a lackluster first season and the stigma of being a British adaptation was the transformation of that character from a one-dimensional annoyance into a sympathetic every-man.

The writers quickly realized that a pale imitation of Brent would not suffice if they wanted to survive. You could see the flashes of developmental potential in season one, as Michael’s needs to be liked and loved shone through the cracks of his ridiculously politically incorrect exterior. Even then, the character would often veer towards the cruel. The exclusion of Phyllis from the game in “Basketball” or the attempt to take back his donation to Oscar’s walk-a-thon in “The Alliance” are two scenes that come to mind. No matter how good the writing or supporting cast of a show is, you simply cannot get by with an unlikable lead. Once it was conveyed that Michael’s antics came from a place of deep insecurity and not callousness, the show finally found its legs.


The quote that I led with at the top of this article is revealing and yet slightly misleading at the same time. While none of us may know someone quite as absurd as Michael, the elements of his character are more ubiquitous than anyone would like to admit. He is a larger than life mirror of a person’s need to be cool and accepted. Whereas some people can make life seem effortless, Michael would try as hard as he could to reach that level, missing the entire point with his futile efforts.

It is a demoralizing paradox to reside in, where trying alienates you more and not trying further cements the status quo. This is the space where the audience was able to fully being empathizing and rooting for the character. In the season one finale, “Hot Girl”, Michael spends all day trying to flirt with guest star Amy Adams only to see proverbial “cool guy” Jim drive her home at the end of the day. Yet, pity is not enough to embrace a character. The second season begins with “The Dundies”, a wonderful symbolic episode for Michael. It is a night where no one is forgotten and everyone gets an award, even if it is for having the whitest tennis shoes. The office rallies around Michael when the other diners in the Chili’s make fun of him because everyone looks for a little appreciation even amidst the cringe-worthy monologues and jokes by your boss. It was at this point that it became clear that Michael, above all else, cares about the people he works with. The selfishness of his earlier exploits faded a little. He did not want his employees to like him to serve his ego, he wanted them to reciprocate his love for them and the family they had at Dunder-Mifflin. The Office demonstrates the importance of the distinction between a jerk you want to watch and root for, and a jerk you don’t.

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With that said, I turn my attention now to Stephen Merchant, the extremely tall half of the duo responsible for The Office, Extras, and Life’s Too Short with Ricky Gervais. Merchant premiered his new sitcom Hello Ladies on HBO in late September and just wrapped the season finale on Sunday. Adapted from his stand-up show of the same name, Merchant plays Stuart Pritchard, a gawky web designer trying to find love in Los Angeles. Working with Merchant are Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who both served as writers and executive producers on the American Office. Now that the first season has finished, I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast Merchant’s character Stuart to the immortal Michael Scott. (A look at David Brent would have been fun as well but the presence of Eisenberg and Stupnitsky made me feel a look at the American Office would be more appropriate.)

In the first few moments of the pilot episode, the tone for Stuart’s character is set as he and his friend Wade (played by the affable Nate Torrence) try to talk to two women. We are treated to a Roe v. Wade joke just seconds in and this sets the tone for the cringing humor Merchant seemingly loves to employ. Stuart is entranced by the L.A. nightlife, hoping and dreaming to be the guy invited to 3 a.m. parties in Malibu surrounded by actresses and models. Intoxicated by the alluring glamour of the Hollywood Hills, Stuart tries desperately to become part of L.A.’s socialite scene.

The second episode, “The Limo”, places Stuart on the wrong side of the previously mentioned jerk line. He spends the entire time hitting it off with a woman in the limo, only to abandon her, Wade, and everyone else when the possibility of a hooking up with a model arises. It is a really awful moment for the character and is demonstrably reminiscent of Michael in season one of The Office. Like Stuart, Michael always thought he could do better and consequently acted like he was superior to almost everyone else. Both shows tried to inject humbling moments into both character’s lives but the move loses its effect when the audience is not on their side. Michael’s better side was showcased once The Office began displaying his affection for his co-workers. Some of Stuart’s relationships with his friends can be troubling though.

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Juxtaposed against Stuart is his best friend Wade, who just broke up with his wife after a long relationship. Wade’s earnestness and desire to stay part of a family contrasts sharply against Stuart’s wannabe womanizer act. The saccharine innocence shown by Wade only highlights the insensitive way Stuart approaches dating and women. Even worse, Stuart often leaves Wade on the sidelines to satisfy his deluded chase. Now that we are at the end of the season, I still find myself asking, “Why is Wade friends with Stuart?” In the first half of the season, it rarely felt like Stuart cares about anything other than meeting models and the writers have not made the relationship convincing enough yet. Another issue with Stuart and his values is his idolization of Glen, Jessica’s agent/part-time lover. Glen is a handsome and charming ladies’ man, an embodiment of the lifestyle Stuart craves. Jessica looks for more out of their relationship but it becomes obvious as the season carries on that he does not truly care about her. Despite this, Stuart wants nothing more than to be his friend and to ultimately become the same kind of person.

The best aspect of Hello Ladies in its maiden season though, is Stuart’s interactions and relationship with his roommate Jessica, a struggling actress. Played by Christine Woods, Jessica’s presence makes Stuart lose the lothario act for the most part when they talk and joke with each other. Merchant and Woods have excellent chemistry and the way he acts with her character makes you wish that Stuart could be like that all the time. The most genuine and enjoyable moments of the season have often come when Stuart and Jessica retire to the couch at the end of the night, bonding over the miseries in their lives. The penultimate episode of the season, “The Wedding”, delightfully exhibits their chemistry with probably the show’s best scene. At a mutual friend’s wedding, after Stuart strikes out again with a girl and Jessica fails to impress a playwright with her work, they come together on the empty dance floor and share a nice moment together as they laugh and dance by themselves.

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While Hello Ladies may blatantly be setting them up to be together down the line, I am enjoying the little moments that they effortlessly pull off in the meantime. Sunday’s finale served as the climax of that buildup in both their arcs. At a party with Stuart, Jessica receives the news that her upcoming role on NCIS will be recast, putting an end to what would have been her big break. As she retreats home and calls Glen, Stuart continues chasing the girl he has been after since midseason ignorant of Jessica’s situation. When Stuart learns of Jessica’s bad news from Glen, he leaves to find her despite being achingly close to finally getting what he wanted. Glen then tells him that he “doesn’t want to deal with that on my Friday night” and continues partying. When Stuart arrives home, he and Jessica share another sweet scene as Stuart comforts her and they put on a movie.

The strong run to end the season showed that Hello Ladies does in fact have a soft side. Its hopefully continued heartfelt emergence in season two, should HBO renew it, will provide a much better backdrop to Stuart’s antics than the moments in the first few episodes. As I mentioned earlier, The Office couched Michael’s less than nice tendencies with his underlying insecurity and care for the people around him. Although far from perfect, Hello Ladies illustrates some of the same potential as The Office, and I hope HBO gives Merchant and Co. another season to try to reach it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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24 Comments

  1. That ending was complete with the melodramatic mint case. Stuart has been selfish every time, even if he wants to go back for Jessica he has plenty of time with Kimberly. He treats Wade and Kives like dirt, clearly he doesn’t care that much about his friends, it’s just stupid writing so he doesn’t get the girl. Totally out of character. Won’t watch next season.

  2. Loretta Lopez
    0

    Nice analyses. This is not the worst show on TV by any stretch, it is however pretty painful to watch.

    Stewart has no redeeming qualities, I cannot sympathize with his shallow desire to fit into a very 1-dimensional self-absorbed lifestyle with a circle of narcissistic celeb-obsessed fame whores, and the other characters are either pathetic or annoying.

    Wade is pathetic.

    Kives is annoying/borderline ‘kinda cool’.

    Jessica is just as shallow as Stewart, only she slightly knows it and tries to behave in a more thoughtful manner but it doesn’t change the fact that she too wants the exact same lifestyle that Stewart does within the exact same circle of jerks.

    Ultimately it’s a series of painfully awkward missteps from an unlikeable and awkward character.

    Aside from some minor laughs, and the show DOES have laughs the show has some very predictable scenarios/endings.

    I don’t feel good when Stewart gets dismissed by the people he wants approval for. It’s painful actually.

    I’m not really sure who or what I should be rooting for in this show, but as of right now it’s a time-killer and Stewart, as sad as he really is, is just not earning any level of emotional investment no matter who many ‘secret diary’ scenes reveal him to actually be frightened to end up alone.

    I want to like it because I love the work Merchant is associated with but I think it needs a lot more work at this point.

    • A lot of good points. I am also a little biased because of how much I like Merchant and his work. Stuart definitely has a long way to go but I was encouraged by the signs exhibited in the last few episodes.

  3. I think the show would have been better if it was set in the midwest and Stewart was more like Ted Mosby. At least with Ted, he is likable and is hitting on women that is in his league. Stewart is unlikable and is living in a fantasy world hitting on super hot women. It’s also annoying to have the show in LA because a majority of the country doesn’t understand living out there.

    • Good point, but that is part of Stuart’s character. He is hopelessly deluded and naive almost. LA is also a fascinating backdrop and i feel the show has demonstrated the glamorous detachment and loneliness of the city.

  4. i find myself hating everyone on the show at some point except stuart’s roomate rory who just always makes me laugh. its like i don’t want any of them to succeed but im sad when they fail. i love how every episode finds a way to give me douche chills. this is one of my new favorite shows because its very funny and has a feel to it like no other ive seen. plus that hall and oats theme song is a super groovy tune.

  5. This show will not catch on because of the simple fact the Stuart has no redeeming qualities at all and is totally unlikable and annoying, I wanted to like this so much as I’m a big fan of Merchant’s but he’s messed this one up big time, you need to find something enjoyable about the lead character but unfortunately there’s nothing to like about Stuart..I’d punch him in the face if I could reach that high..what a jerk and not funny to me but that’s just my 2 cents.

    • elsa foster
      0

      I disagree. This show is just really funny. I find myself laughing a lot through each episode. Well written comedy with good acting and great humor!

      • Kevin Licht

        Yeah, I haven’t watched this show yet, but I think anything can catch on, no matter how unlikable the characters are. Just look at Girls. There aren’t many redeemable qualities in any of the characters on that show, and it’s a relatively big hit.

  6. Vic Millar

    It was strange that the American pilot for The Office was just a line-for-line remake of the British version, they dug themselves a David Brent-hole and spent the next five episodes trying to dig them out of it. But he really did come to his own as a character in season two, for reasons you pointed out. Haven’t seen Hello Ladies yet but I plan on checking it out soon, I’m a fan of Merchant as well. Great article, look forward to seeing what you write next!

  7. This is the funniest show to come along in years! I hope it catches on, and has a long run, this is a comedic gold mine.

  8. Hope there is a season 2!

  9. Joy Lynch
    0

    I am a fan of Gervais/Merchant type of comedy, the kind that makes you cringe and yet feel sympathetic to the main character at the same time. It’s both painful and funny at the same time.

    • Mothwings

      What I find, though, is that it’s not so painful that I have to turn it off which is great. I can feel really sympathetic, but not so sympathetic that I feel embarrassed for them and start feeling anxious.

  10. I think that your assertion that a show can’t get by with an unlikeable lead is false. It doesn’t appear to be essential to your point, and I like the piece overall, but I think that initial idea is incorrect, or at least incomplete.

    A lead can certainly be unlikeable. Don Draper is unlikeable. Walter White is unlikeable. The lead has to be interesting and the lead has to be understandable. But they don’t have to be likable.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I was referring more to sitcoms with the premise of this article as it becomes much more difficult to name such anti-heroes in the context of comedies. You could counter with perhaps the cast of Seinfeld but people still liked and rooted for them despite their misguided morality. You are right in saying this general rule does not apply as much to dramas though.

  11. JohnLawrence
    0

    Hello Ladies is exactly what Hello Ladies is and they don’t need to humanise Stewart. It is perfect as it is.

    Who wants Stewart to be a likeable loser? I don’t like him and I don’t dislike him but the situations he finds himself in and how he deals with it are hilarious. There is a reason why the title of the show is Hello Ladies and not I’m Looking For Love. You’re not supposed to like Stewart, if you liked him the show would be a disaster and it would be compared to trash like New Girl.

    The last episode of Hello Ladies had a terrible ending. I don’t want to feel pity for Stewart otherwise the show becomes just another quirky rom-com. He should have ended the episode by somehow stealing the model’s underwear or something else equally pathetic. Let’s face it he isn’t going to end up with a model as a girlfriend and when the audience feel sorry for him because the model doesn’t want to jump in to bed with Stewart the show has failed.

  12. He’s become more palatable as a character. Slightly more.

    For a while though just about every character was obnoxious, shallow and very unsympathetic. Could not empathize with any of them or their selfish goals. The only one who gained a modicum of sympathy was Wade and he just mostly disturbed and depressed me more than anything and I just didn’t want to see more of him.

  13. Andrea Paul

    The article begs a greater question as to whether it is still necessary for protagonists to be redeeming at all. The trend of “bad guys” that you love, such as in mod dramas and breaking bad is a growing trend. I find it interesting that it’s now crossed over into comedy. I think ja’mie is similar in that she is not a like able protagonist, yet different because I don’t think we are supposed to like her. Rather we love to hate her.

  14. Kathryn Talbot

    I will watch anything Merchant is in, so I am definitely biased, but I really enjoy Hello, Ladies. I think Stuart is in for some great character development, and I hope to see it next season. Great article!

  15. lewpeet93
    0

    I thought Hello Ladies was brilliant in comparison to almost every sit-com, certainly the majority of the US ones which just seem to be churned out ever year for ratings. I think people can underestimate how hard it is to do that kind of awkward humour that Merchant and Gervais always nail. I did think that they did go a bit overboard with how unlikable Stuart was throughout though, and they paid the price for it at the end because the conclusion wasn’t as satisfying as I think it could have been. Very good article!

  16. I’ve never heard of Hello Ladies until just now, but it sounds like I might need to check it out.

  17. Excellent article, reminds me of some of the stuff I like to read.

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