TV: Hello Ladies and Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

TV: Hello Ladies and Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight
Television still: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

SINGAPORE - If you know Ricky Gervais, you would likely know Stephen Merchant too.

As Gervais' gawky, tall partner- in-comedy-crime, Merchant is the co-creator of The Office (British version), Extras and last year's hilarious Life's Too Short, where he sat next to Gervais as they played fictional versions of themselves interviewing out-of-work dwarf actor Warwick Davis.

In this year's romcom movie I Give It A Year, he played a geek friend in the background spouting awkward sexual comments which made women squirm.

That is Merchant's comic forte - he plays the annoying lanky loser blissfully saying all the wrong and/or lewd things in any given situation.

This is unleashed full-frontal in HBO's Hello Ladies, a sitcom which I thought at first to be a tiresome retread of his shtick but has since made me laugh outright for milking its comic situations in a way only a wicked, bespectacled Brit twit with wit can. Merchant is co-creator, co-writer and director.

Oh, you still want to punch the man for the condescending way he corners and treats women with only one desperate thought on his mind - to bed them.

But you have to marvel at his diabolical degree of lasciviousness as he plots his moves, such as insidiously dumping one group of gals for a younger, better- looking bunch in one episode.

Merchant plays Stuart, an English web designer displaced as a creepy sex fiend in Los Angeles, which to him is a haven of unattainable hot chicks and perpetually dashed dreams.

Everything, though, is set up too easily and too pat for the kind of eccentric-cool adult-com which HBO excels at. Stuart's pad is neat and fab, he rents out a guest house to a loopy wannabe actress, Jessica (FlashForward's Christine Woods), and his best pals are a newly separated sad sack (Nate Torrence) and a horny dude in a wheelchair (Alias' Kevin Weisman).

How come, I always wonder, these fellas in TV-Land never have a normal, boring person like me for a friend?

But Woods' Jessica is hilarious as the new Elaine Benes, taking over where Julia Louis-Dreyfus left off in Seinfeld.

Watch her try to fool her arch actress-rival that she is going for a screen test in a coveted Martin Scorsese film instead of an audition for a sanitary pad commercial.

It is early days, but I think the show has not made up its mind whether Stuart is supposed to be sweetly charming or cringingly creepy.

He is endearing when he is with Jessica, but with the women he craves, he is clumsy, cloying and innately cruel like a pervert with a smile.

Like other Brit comics, however, Merchant can be bitingly nasty yet make you laugh at something you think is cleverly funny. Now, while you wish to punch only one chap in Hello Ladies, many far more important punches are traded in Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.

Once again, HBO's expertise in making terrific, tangential docu-dramas has surprised me. I really thought this was going to be about one of boxing legend Muhammad Ali's fights against Joe Frazier, George Foreman and other boxers.

But the main battle here takes place in the Supreme Court of America where eight elderly white men converge, collude, debate and then confront one another to change mindsets and alter history.

In President Richard Nixon's hardline, protest-marching America of the 1970s, Ali refuses to serve in the US military to fight in the Vietnam War.

Charged with draft-dodging, stripped of his heavyweight champion title, banned from boxing and targeted for arrest, he takes his case of conscientious objector to the highest court in the land.

Mad Men captures the changing mores and transforming circumstances of the heady 1960s through the 1970s via the heart, soul and fashion.

Here is the intellectual equivalent.

Top-notch Brit director Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006) wisely eschews the courtroom histrionics and instead makes behind-the-scenes bartering even more riveting than anything up front.

He has two superb weapons apart from the great script.

One, the real Muhammad Ali himself, who appears here only in archived form, still incredibly captivating. The Louisville Lip's youthful, confident, very charismatic appearances on film clips are interspersed throughout the telemovie as a running factual backdrop.

Two, a superb cast of experienced old gents - including Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Danny Glover, Harris Yulin, even Rain Man (1988) director Barry Levinson - playing the custodians of the Supreme Court who meet, creak and tweak like dinosaurs at a new dawn.

That court in those days, unlike the rainbow group of today, was an old boys' club dominated by conservatives; and the wily veterans, clustering like the jury in the 1957 legal classic, 12 Angry Men, are pitch-perfect in their roles.

But Frears' use of a group of enthusiastic young-punk law clerks to modernise and propel the story is too convenient and too Dead Poets Society (1989).

He uses one of them, Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), apparently a composite character of actual people, to be the open-minded conscience and voice of reason of the drama.

Although I suspect that it has all been over-simplified, just seeing Langella and Plummer as two aged lions exude legality, morality and gravity is an absolute joy.

Which makes the retirement home seem like an enticing prospect.

View It

Hello ladies
HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 9.30pm
Rating: 3 and a half out of 5

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight
HBO Signature (StarHub TV Channel 603), Premieres tomorrow, 10pm
Rating: 4 out of 5

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