“Rebranding” S1 / E4
- B- Community Grade
It’s a weird thing to write about a show, especially one that you like, when you’re almost positive it’s going to be canceled. It feels like the ultimate exercise in futility. Constructive criticism is obviously pointless, as is vocal praise. Alas, it’s my job to write about Free Agents the day after NBC lowered the boom on The Playboy Club, a show fully deserving of its early demise, as rumors swirl about the imminent end of Free Agents. I really like this show, but I certainly don’t feel Freaks and Geeks/Arrested Development-worthy levels of existential despair over its likely cancellation. More just, you know, a little bummed out. Still, rather than dwelling on this show's shortcomings (namely: too much of the buffoons at the office, too little Anthony Head), I’m going to talk about what I like. Why kick a show when it’s down, right?
Last week’s episode we spent too much time away from the Alex and Helen storyline. It was probably necessary for Free Agents to spend more time the supporting characters, but I for one was happy that the Alex-Halen storyline returned to center of the narrative in “Rebranding.” The gimmick of Free Agents is the constant emotional push-pull between Alex and Helen. Yes, it’s repetitive, but if you’re not willing to accept that, this isn’t—and never was going to be—the show for you.
"Rebranding" begins with a by-now familiar scene: As his co-workers look on, Alex talks to the female executive of a chemical company. She appears to be flirting with him, but then she gives him a strictly platonic back pat. Alex is too pathetic, too needy, too vulnerable to be sexy. Or at least that’s what Helen’s trying to convince herself by telling Alex things like, “Emotionally, you’re leaking a gas that can turn otters bald,” but it’s obvious she doesn’t really mind talking to Alex about his feelings—that in fact, she sort of likes it. Nevertheless, Alex and Helen have another one of their “Why are you so emotional?”/”Why do you hate your feelings so much?” talks and agree that they’ll both try an internet date.
Helen winds up on a miserable date with guy who’s got a hook-hand and a monkey bladder. Yes, the hook-hand joke has been done before—on both 30 Rock and Arrested Development—so I will have to deduct five points from my score card, Free Agents, for lack of originality. But that’s just fine, because she’s got her hands full at the office this week, trying to convince Mrs. Potter, the wife of a philandering CEO, to stand by her husband at a press conference in order to protect the company’s share price. Initially, Mrs. Potter isn’t interested, but after Helen, lubricated by drink, opens up about her fiancé, she changes her mind. Helen has learned her lesson: vulnerability can sometimes be good.
Meanwhile, Alex is learning the opposite lesson. He goes on a date with Dawn, a pretty, bespectacled divorcee who turns out to be a lot cuter than her “fisherman’s widow” portrait would seem to suggest. Like Alex, she’s a little bit of a mess emotionally, and she starts crying on their first date. Naturally, this doesn’t freak Alex out; he tells Helen it was “messy and real and human.” “Oh, yuck,” she responds. Naturally, Helen is sent into a minor tailspin of jealousy. She scrutinizes Dawn’s profile and determines that Dawn, who likes The Lovely Bones and Joni Mitchell, is “a demented vampire woman who feeds off of emotional torment.” (I would have guessed “a freshman at Mount Holyoke,” but whatever.) In last week’s episode, “Dr. Hu,” Helen’s behavior veered into crazy territory. This week, in a happy development, she was back in the land of the (relatively) normal. Yeah, she gets a little fixated with Dawn, but hey—I don’t know a woman who hasn’t obsessively scrutinized a romantic rival at some point in their lives.
A few dates later, though, and things get a little too “mess and real and human” for Alex. Three years after her divorce, Dawn is still visiting the bench where her ex proposed to her, which is only feet away from the bench where he told he wanted a divorce. (I loved the sad absurdity of this scene.) Anyway, it’s all too much for Alex, who decides he’d love to not talk about feelings with Helen, and soon enough he’s dashing off to her place for round number three in bed. The thing about this show is that whatever its faults, the chemistry between the leads is such that I’ll forgive a whole lot. And since basically every episode ends with Alex and Helen together, being cute and charming, it always leaves me wanting more. To be fair, I don't know if I'd be saying that 12 weeks from now, and that's always been the biggest question mark with this show—just how can the premise be sustained over the course of a whole season?
By far the saddest thing about the possible cancellation of Free Agents is the loss of Kathryn Hahn, a fast-talking "dame" who seems like she could have been lifted out of a George Cukor movie. No doubt when this show gets killed, Hank Azaria will find more work, or just count his Simpsons money. He's a delightful, likeable performer, but Hahn is the one with truly singular charm. I'm hoping she finds another project that showcases her talent soon.