Free Agents is a series that melds two distinct but not entirely unrelated television genres: the adult romantic comedy and the workplace comedy. So far, the series has offered up more of the former, focusing on the halting (non-)romance between Alex and Helen. For the most part, this is a good thing; the chemistry between Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn is the reason I responded so enthusiastically to this show in the first place. The office stuff, on the other hand, has always been less convincing to me. “Dr. Hu” is the first episode in which the office politics are front and center, and that may be why it’s my least favorite installment of the series to date.
I’m not going to freak out and rescind my support for this show—not yet, anyway. Instead, I’m going to acknowledge “Dr. Hu” for what it is: a necessary, if somewhat disappointing, “growth” episode. The goal is not necessarily to dazzle us but to help flesh out the fictional world of the series. These episodes don’t make for great TV, but the hope is they might lead to great TV down the road. In any case, let’s hope “Dr. Hu” is just a phase—even if this show doesn’t have much longer to live.
In the opening scene, Alex and Helen stand outside in the pouring rain discussing their latest client, an umbrella company seeking to woo male customers; apparently, guys just really don’t like umbrellas (I must have missed that memo). Alex is perfectly happy using one, and Helen teases him for it, suggesting that it somehow undermines his masculinity. It’s not the most convincing line of attack—again, I’m unfamiliar with this particular gender stereotype—but the point is made. And it’s made yet again when Alex picks up his fat-free peach muffin and just once more when a hunky bystander has to help him fix his umbrella. It’s not that subtle, but it’s an effective enough way to set up the episode.
Cut to the conference room, where Alex is pitching his idea to Portland’s leading umbrella magnates. He lines up pictures of “real men”: a cop, a construction worker, a cowboy. Alex’s assistant Emma kindly points out the obvious fact that he’s basically pitching the Village People. (If you didn’t see this joke coming a mile away, well, I worry about you.) Alex scolds Emma, but the clients eat it up, and soon enough, Emma is poised to go all Peggy Olson on Alex. She gets a temp to fill in at her desk and accuses Alex of dropping the ball by going to spend time with his kids. She’s got laserlike focus, while he’s “old and stressed and pre-occupied with ex-wives.”
But when it comes time to give her presentation, Emma is freaking out. “I’m gonna puke a little,” she says just before she makes her pitch—a ludicrous idea to promote the use of umbrellas as weapons. She chokes, and Alex steps in to save the day with a slightly less ridiculous idea about how rain contaminants contribute to hair loss. (Where Emma sees a lethal weapon, Alex sees a modest way to mitigate against baldness—it’s a difference in perception that should tell you everything you need to know about these characters.) So in the end, Emma’s brief, failed insurgency actually boosts Alex’s standing in the office, rather than undermining it completely.
This storyline sort of worked on a thematic level, but there’s something about the office half of Free Agents that isn’t quite working for me. It may just be the contrast between the leads and the rest of the cast; it sometimes feels like Azaria and Hahn are starring in a different show from everyone else. The supporting characters are broad, goofy, and almost slapstick-y, while Alex and Helen are funny in a more verbal, sophisticated way. We’ve at least seen some character development in Emma, but the same cannot be said for Gregg and Den. And while we’re on the subject of the supporting cast, why hasn’t Anthony Head gotten more screen time yet?
So, let’s talk about the other, better half of Free Agents. Alex and Helen are basically locked in a game of romantic “chicken”: Neither one will admit that they care about the other, but they’re waiting for the other one to cave in first. Helen’s strategy is to pretend that no, really, she’s just fine, and thanks, but she doesn’t need anyone’s help, least of all Alex’s. His plan is simpler: therapy. He suggests Helen go see his shrink—which seems like a weird thing to recommend to the person you’re trying to sleep with, doesn’t it?—and soon enough, Helen is dating Dr. Hu. She’s killing two birds with one stone: dating her first Asian and proving that she doesn’t need professional help. Of course, her behavior suggests otherwise, especially when Alex bumps into them at dinner. Dr. Hu grows tired of the drama between these “co-dependent whackjobs” leaving Alex and Helen on an accidental date together. Within seconds, they’ve ceased being angry with each other and are back to flirting.
The therapy thing was kind of ridiculous, and though I love Hahn, something about the way Helen was written this week felt off—she was loopier than usual, and while I love her vulnerability, this week she veered a little into Crazytown. One of the things that I loved so much about the pilot was that it was dark and cynical but also, somehow, very sweet. This week, this tricky balance was way out of whack. It's understandable, but I hope it's a temporary glitch. Anyway, whatever the problems with the rest of this episode were, I fell back in love (okay, maybe “like”) with Free Agents in the last few seconds of the show, as Alex and Helen sat talking about their green beans and how "no one with dimples has ever helped anybody." More of that, please.
- I would like to know where the costume designer on this show finds all of Helen's amazing, colorful, body-conscious shift dresses. I want.
- "Look at her go, like a rat up a rope."
- Wait, Helen is a redhead?
- "If this was The Breakfast Club, you would be Ally Sheedy."