It's hard to view Stephen Merchant as anything but a sidekick.

As Ricky Gervais' go-to guy in so many series (and as one of the brains behind the British version of "The Office"), he knows the territory.

In "Hello Ladies," a new HBO comedy, he steps out of the shadow and find quite a few laughs, particularly when he tries to navigate the tricky waters of the Los Angeles dating world.

A semi-successful web designer, Merchant's Stuart is still a giant among perfectly-sized humans. He wants to go to the hot clubs, date the hottest women and live the life others only dream. But he's not quite right for most of the shallow women. Think: A kinder Larry David at a singles spa.

In the first episode, he wants to go to a hot club but doesn't have an in. He thinks by arriving in a limousine he's going to impress the doorman and glide in. Nice try, right?

When that fails, he and his friends try to use the limo to their advantage. They spot a group of women from St. Louis and ask if they'd like a ride. The women agree, Stuart could get a date and then? A friend says she can get into the club. His plans quickly change and he's thrust into a world of possibilities.

Unfortunately, once in the door, Stuart isn't guaranteed anything.

Merchant toys with temptation nicely and gets a lot of mileage out of the posse that surrounds him -- a friend who has been dumped by his wife, a handicapped friend who uses a disability to his advantage, an actress who has an on-again/off-again relationship with her agent. But the key to "Ladies'" success is Merchant's willingness to look bad.

Like Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Veep," the worse he looks, the better the comedy is.

Simple moves -- like messing with a car's security system when his friend's wife is dumping him -- are brilliant, revealing Merchant as the triple threat that "Hello Ladies" positions him to be.

If the series travels the same road each week, it won't be that fun. But Merchant getting his comeuppance has real potential. He lampoons himself frequently (the big feet gag is priceless) and takes a good poke at the shallow women of L.A.

When his friend Jessica (Christine Woods) plans a movie night at home, she suggests watching "Battleship Potemkin." "Is that the one with Rihanna?" an airhead asks.

Little by little, "Hello Ladies" grows on you. In time, it just might reach Merchant's towering stature.

"Hello Ladies" airs at 9:30 p.m. Sundays on HBO.