It’s hard to envision a setting in which someone as endearingly goofy and genuinely hilarious as Stephen Merchant has trouble making a good impression.
It turns out that place is Los Angeles.
In his charming, sweetly aching new HBO comedy, “Hello Ladies,” premiering Sunday at 10:30 p.m., Merchant (“Extras,” “The Ricky Gervais Show”) plays Stuart Pritchard, a British Web designer transplanted to the left coast, looking for love.
That he is socially awkward, extremely cheap, and consistently contorts his gangly 6-foot-7-inch frame into comical hip swivels and moonwalks is a detriment to that pursuit. As is his sad sack of a best friend Wade (Nate Torrence) — who clarifies his name in a loud nightclub to women by saying “Like Roe vs. Wade” — who is laser-focused on his impending divorce.
Stuart works out of his swanky bachelor pad, whose guest house he rents to aspiring actress and Web series creator Jessica (Christine Woods), who is feeling an ennui similar to Stuart’s. But not so similar that the pair are anything other than TV and take-out buddies after a night of romantic disappointment.
The first two episodes available for review establish that the stand-up and actor, who also writes and directs here, can effortlessly shift to be the comic center of a series — as opposed to the flavoring as a sidekick to Ricky Gervais. He makes even the most absurd and cringeworthy situations — his desperate attempts to enter an exclusive Hollywood hot spot is like horror comedy — feel authentic and conversational.
But for as many laughs as there are, a strong undercurrent of melancholy also runs through “Hello Ladies.” We watch Stuart hit the grocery store alone, microwave his meals for one, and grasp at human contact, romantic or otherwise, in a way that speaks to the nature of the need for comedy, that if we didn’t laugh we’d cry. For the remainder of its eight-episode first season, with any luck “Hello Ladies” will remain a clever companion for all viewers, but especially all those take-out-eating single friends.