Dating sucks. Just ask Stephen Merchant.

stephen-merchant-shines-as-desperate-casanova-in-hbo-comedy-hello-ladiesDating is hell, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. If you don’t believe me, remember Sex & The City, a warts-and-all portrait of the relentless New York dating scene that seemed to me exactly like the deepest pit of Hades, only with better footwear. I assume Manolo also produces a cloven-hoof range for the afterlife.

I’ve never been able to understand those serial daters who flit from romance to romance like bumblebees buzzing from petal to petal, spreading STIs in lieu of pollen. It’s hard enough trying to find someone who’s single, tolerably nice and over their last failed relationship/s, let alone facing the near-impossible challenge of trying to convince them that their lives would be improved with you in it.

As someone who doesn’t immediately assume that women I meet must have a me-shaped hole in their lives, I’ve always struggled with the challenge of hooking up, and have always resented those dudes who seem to be instinctively good with women.You know, those guys who, on arriving in any room, can simultaneously make every female heart flutter, and who collect phone numbers like I once collected episodes of The Late Show recorded onto VHS.

I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with dating, not least thanks to this article in the paper this week about George B. Green’s book offering dating advice for beta males. As one who’s generally been only too happy to step aside for the alphas to get first dibs as per the natural order of things, resigning myself to offering a shoulder to cry on when alpha-guy had inevitably moved on – at least partly in the hope that the shoulder might prove more enticing than the lady might have been expecting – I would have enjoyed reading about others’ experiences.

Or, more accurately, inexperiences.

The book does sound a little problematic. But that’s inevitable – after all, as we’re painfully aware, we betas are flawed. In particular, Green’s suggestion that you memorise jokes seems lame even by beta standards. My approach has always been simply to make jokes at my own expense. That way everyone will laugh with you, instead of at you, even though they are technically also laughing at you.

That awkward divide between laughing with and at somebody is one that Stephen Merchant explores in his new HBO comedy series Hello Ladies, which is screening on Foxtel. As co-creator of The Office with Ricky Gervais, drawing humour from agonising social awkwardness is familiar ground for him, but I have to say that at least half of my laughs came from embarrassing recognition rather than the script.

Asking a mutual friend whether someone’s been talking about you and refusing to take their gentle hints that you should give up, because they’re out of your league? Yep, I’ve done that. Finding yourself buying drinks for everybody instead of just the person you’re interested in? Check. And retaining impossibly high standards even when there was no chance of getting anywhere? Story of – well, a large part of my life, at least.

Assuming that riding in a stretch limo would lead to action? Been there, too. And driving a fancy convertible and mentioning it constantly to ladies in the hope that they’d be interested in the car, at least, even if not with me? Maybe if I could have afforded a convertible as nice as his. And driving home alone, feeling glum as yet another night of potential translated into nothingness – well, I’ve been there more times than I could count.

George B. Green should watch it too, I suspect – especially since there’s one episode where Merchant tries to memorise jokes, with results that it would be charitable to describe as mixed. I’m sure that on watching episode four, he’d find himself revising his book.

Merchant’s character is pathetically desperate and deluded, and uncomfortably so, but he’s also got elements of David Brent-style obnoxiousness in the mix as well. He’s appallingly cheap -a highly unattractive characteristic in anyone – and highly crass. I don’t know that the character needs it, because it makes him a bit less endearing.

But Merchant pulls it off, because – well, he’s Merchant, with his tall, thin figure, disconcertingly-parted hair and a goggly smile that veers between comical and terrifying. Some day, somebody will cast him as a serial killer, and he’ll win an Oscar. But in the mean time, he’s made a very funny comedy series, even though I can barely watch it because of the amount of shameful flashbacks I experience while watching.

As for beta males – as awful as we can be, Green makes a compelling case for dating us. Apparently we “make better long-term partners due to [our] caring nature and increased capacity for empathy”. In other words, having been shat upon repeatedly by life, we’re more able to relate to others when it happens to them. In still other words, the truth is that we’re generally desperate, and consequently grateful when anyone takes a chance on us.

As for Stephen Merchant – well, he was dating Rose Byrne, at least at one point, and is now a TV star. So while he still plays a loser on-screen, he is nevertheless a hero to us betas everywhere. He shows that all you have to do to date a Hollywood actress is create several of the funniest comedy series of all time, and then star in your own show. Which is challenging, I’ve no doubt. But he probably found it considerably easier than asking girls out.

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