The most distinguishing trait of Stephen Merchant’s comedies is the way they employ jokes like a thriller. Rather than telling the audience where the bomb is or where the serial killer lurks and having them want to scream at characters to avoid them, Merchant’s shows set up their disastrously painful moments of embarrassment far in advance for the same reason. That’s not the only bit of painful comedy he’s great at, but it’s simultaneously the most interesting and the least palatable and mainstream part of his sensibility. The anxiety induced in waiting for these moments of embarrassment are what most distinguished the British Office from the American one, not to mention making his shows incredibly difficult to marathon.
Once “The Dinner” gets past its first act, it’s for the most part one long, frequently painful wait for things to fall apart. The moment Stuart pulls up a jokes app in the bathroom and we see him scroll down to “Gay Jokes,” the end of the episode is set up for us. It’s the comedic equivalent of him finding a gun, and it’s only a matter of time before he says something completely offensive and it destroys everything. This comedic suspense is what makes “dark” comedies like South Park or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia go down easy by comparison.
The wonder is really how Stuart and Jessica got that far in the first place. It can be difficult to get a sense of whether Stuart is always that much of an ass or if it’s only when it comes to women that he completely loses his self-awareness. The really difficult part of the episode to watch, though, came from Jessica’s decision to show off her party talent, tap dancing. Without tap shoes. Or music. Or having tap danced in who knows how many years. And while it can be difficult to watch Stuart when he’s behaving so boorishly, this is always tempered a bit by irritation with him as a human being. Jessica’s embarrassment is even worse, though, because she’s much easier to empathize with, especially when Amelia is around. There are few things sadder than a grown woman tap-dancing to impress a room of adults only to be asked to get off the furniture.
When it comes to the jokes themselves, what I loved was the arbitrariness of where the line was drawn. While it’s somewhat understandable that once slurred, the party guests are angry, many of Stuart’s earlier jokes were even nastier and meaner and, to my ears, more offensive. Stuart’s confusion seems natural given what occurred, even as we the viewers are really more surprised it took them this long to throw him out of the party. It’s also this obliviousness that makes Stuart possible to empathize with, as he truly doesn’t want to be nasty and by now really seems to like everyone but Amelia at the party, beyond merely what they can do for him. But he doesn’t understand the rules of the game, and while his errors are understandable, so is throwing him out of the house.
What kept the “The Dinner” from being as good as last week’s episode were the weird bits of unrealistic plot that cropped up toward the end. The fact that the model agency owner knew the exact woman on the billboard Stuart has been obsessed with seems not only farfetched but unnecessary. The billboard played better as a symbol than as a literal aspiration, and letting the model on it exist as someone Stuart could meet and interact with is strange and disappointing. The same was true with Wade and Kives finding Stuart’s list of aspirations. Their storyline didn’t seem to really exist in the same world as the rest of the show, and the humanization of Stuart here seemed forced. When so much of Hello Ladies is about painful realism, having saccharine moments like this seems out of place. While it may have been there to relieve some of the tension from the homophobia and dancing elsewhere, it just didn’t mesh with the rest of the show.