This Sunday will be the first Sunday since 2008 where there will be no Breaking Bad.
Not just the first Sunday since 2008 where Breaking Bad won't air, but the first where there is no hope of Breaking Bad, the first one where the anguish of not having Breaking Bad to watch is alleviated in part by the prospect of more Breaking Bad. There is a Breaking Bad-sized hole in television.
We'll miss the tight corners, the writers' MacGuyver-ish ability to wriggle Walt out of the most un-wriggle-out-able scenarios, the bleak moral worldview. But anyone grumbling that the waning of Breaking Bad's grimness means some sort of new dawn for TV shouldn't worry: our darkest hour lies well ahead.
Like a perfectly executed baton pass in a hopelessness relay, last week's Breaking Bad finale overlapped with HBO's new Sunday night comedy block: the howlingly funny/deeply sad twofer of the new season of Jody Hill and Danny McBride's meat-headed American grotesque Eastbound & Down and the debut of the new series Hello Ladies. The top-rated comment for the latter, when it was uploaded to YouTube by the network: "This show is almost too painful." So let's start there.
Hello Ladies is the product of Stephen Merchant, who in addition to starring, co-created the series with Lee Isenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. Merchant also serves as co-writer, and director of the first four episodes. Merchant's probably best known, a little inauspiciously, as second fiddle to Ricky Gervais. He served co-writer, co-director of The Office (the UK one, the good one), and also appeared on Extras and Life's Too Short. He co-hosted the popular Ricky Gervais Show podcasts. He was also pretty good as "the English one" in Hall Pass.
Gervais has consolidated his persona as one of the most in-demand, and puckishly unlikeable, comics working today. But Merchant's resignation to his partner's long shadow has actually benefitted him. While Gervais is attempting, idiotically, to reinvent himself via his new Netflix series Derek (in which he stars as a clammy, guileless, mentally challenged man) as some sort of late period Peter Sellers figure, Merchant's bid for comic pathos feels way more sincere.
Gervais's gross miscalculation with Derek, which I've squirmed through four episodes of, is that his effort to craft his own bracingly naïve Chauncey The Gardner character ends up totally tokenizing people with mental disabilities. Derek basically strengthens their nasty characterization as wide-eyed dolphins of the earth. It is 100% noxious and, for all intents and purposes, unwatchable. On Hello Ladies, Merchant manages something similar without any of the gross pretense or providing a balm for out culture of cringing self-interest (a culture, for the record, which Gervais and Merchant effectively minted the template for with The Office).
Merchant plays Stuart, a web developer and bachelor whose time is apparently spent chasing women in the sort of fussily lit LA nightclub you might see in liquor ads. From its very first scene, in which Stuart and his friend Wade (Nate Torrence), attempt to impress two women but end up floundering when the conversation veers into topics like suicide and abortion ("Wade, like ‘Roe v. Wade'"), the show manages to be hilarious without indulging the sort of boring edginess that might ruin it.
We're not shocked at what Stuart and Wade are saying. Rather, we pity their haplessness. We laugh at them not out of contempt, as we might Gervais' David Brent, but because they earn our sympathy: Stuart and Wade are every dork who ever tried to ply "game," anyone who has uncomfortably raised their voice to a near shout just to communicate over the bouncy beat of some godawful nightclub.
Yes, like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Peep Show, and plenty of others, Hello Ladies is essentially a comedy of embarrassment. But even in its first episode, the show seems pretty uninterested in the biting mean-spiritedness that can dampen a lot cringe comedy. For one, Hello Ladies gamely embraces sitcom conventions, something that sets it apart from post-Office clones (which have simply managed to reproduce a new set of TV sitcom conventions). Stuart's friend Jessica (Christine Woods) is also his tenant, living in his adjacent pool house and constantly passing through. The set up feels cunningly sitcom-y, recalling the days when TV comedies required premises slightly higher concept than "here are a bunch of people at work being filmed by an unseen camera crew."
It also makes Hello Ladies more likeable. Unlike Gervais, who seems desperate to one-up - or, as with Derek, obnoxiously undermine - his bad l'il boy persona (he's basically live action Gabbo), Merchant's not looking to redraw the parameters of TV comedy. He merely wants to be work well inside of them. Hello Ladies also manages to dovetail its sitcom classicism with more current trends in so-called "quality" television. Where Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Shield and other dramas of the past decade-or-so wrestled with issues of morality by jimmying the viewer into identifying with characters wildly unlike them (mob bosses, crooked cops, meth kingpins), comedies like Hello Ladies do the opposite: they ask you watch, often with your fingers splayed over your face, ‘fraidy-cat-style, with your own abject weaknesses.
The lingering shots of Stuart, post-club, stalking the over-lit aisles of a supermarket for microwavable chicken wings feel calculated to stir a reckoning with our own dining-alone solitude, our basic state of pitiable loneliness. Doing this well, in what's ostensibly a comedy, feels like a tougher stunt to pull off than forcing us to deal with capital-m Morality by tracing the rise-and-fall of an anydad-turned-meth-cook or asking us to reconsider our own hardened apathy by confronting us with a mentally challenged caretaker who is better than us because he lacks the capacity for irony.
Then of course, there's Eastbound & Down - back for its final season (for real this time, apparently). The show is trumped only by FX's Louie as the contemporary television program that's a "comedy" in name only. As it's mostly always been, the new season of Eastbound - picking up years after season three, transplanting Danny McBride's Kenny Powers to a suburban home where he's mired down with his own family, a funhouse mirror image of his brother in the first season - is unrelentingly, suffocatingly grim.
Forget Breaking Bad's Heisenberg. The evil that dwells inside every human male, clawing at the veil of civility like a coked-up gremlin, isn't that of the morally bankrupt criminal genius. It's the egoistic loud mouth with the rock hard beer belly and the lightly curled mullet; it's the selfish, unchecked Id fucking over his family to do drugs in his toolshed, trying to remortgage his house to buy a pool he can't afford; it's Kenny Powers.
Breaking Bad may be over. Walter White may be dead (retroactive spoiler alert). But Sunday night TV is more abject and more uncomfortable than it was two weeks ago, downright darker than ever.