Hello Ladies and the “Michael Scott” Problem
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.
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.
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.
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.