This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Meredith Blake, who will be reviewing the series week to week, and Ryan McGee look at Free Agents.
Free Agents debuts tonight on NBC at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. The show will begin airing in its regular timeslot, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, next week.
Meredith: In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of hand-wringing over the woeful state of the romantic comedy. Sure, there are bigger problems in the world than the slow demise of a once-great American film genre—such as the slow demise of the American manufacturing base. But for those of us who adore classics Annie Hall and Bringing Up Baby, it is an inexplicable shame that so many contemporary romantic comedies are irredeemably awful, and that even the best ones are relatively mediocre. If the new NBC sitcom Free Agents is any indication, the future of the romantic comedy might be on the small screen.
From producers John Enbom (Party Down) and Todd Holland (whose long list of credits includes The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm In The Middle), Free Agents reverses the trajectory of most romantic comedies: that is, it begins in bed. Kathryn Hahn and Hank Azaria are Helen and Alex, two executives at a super-slick corporate public relations firm. They end up sleeping together one night, and we first happen upon them as they lie in bed in a state of post-coital awkwardness.
Though we don’t see the prelude to Alex and Helen’s night in the sack, you get the sense that it caught them both by surprise, not that they’ve been lusting after one another for months. Lately, Hollywood has been fond of what might be called the “fuck buddy” subgenre, movies like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits in which excessively attractive young people get together for casual sex and end up falling in love with each other (I hope I didn’t give anything away there). Free Agents, a remake of a British series which just so happens to be premièring on BBC America next month, presents a slightly less giddy version of this formula: Alex and Helen are compelled to sleep together not because of their raging hormones or unstoppable attraction to each other, but because of their shared loneliness.
Alex is a father of two whose recent divorce has left him emotionally ravaged. Helen gamely tries to initiate some sexy talk, but Alex, blind to her cues, starts talking about his son’s birthday and bursts into tears; Helen promptly calls him a cab. It’s not that Helen doesn’t have her own baggage—namely, a fiancé whose death she’s still struggling to accept after a year. She’s just better at keeping it under wraps.
It’s not until the next day, when Alex and Helen have to face each other at the office, that sparks begin to fly—at least in one direction. Alex suggests that he and Helen “get back on the horse” together, but she calmly rebuffs his advances. Alex, a former music journalist, is a beta male who’s somehow wound up in the most alpha of environments. He’s a guy who, by his own admission, isn’t a very good liar, yet gets paid to put a positive spin on things like deadly salmonella outbreaks.
Alex’s sad-sack demeanor isn’t exactly helping his professional reputation. Like sharks who’ve detected blood in the water, his co-workers grill him on his love life and devise dating PR strategies for him. Even Alex’s diminutive assistant bullies him: “Lions don’t eat deer because they’re sassy. It’s called Darwinism.” Stephen, Alex’s lecherous yet debonair boss (played with reptilian charm by Anthony Head, who also stars in the British original), stops by to issue a warning: “You’ve been dropping the ball a bit, bum chum. My advice, forget about your life.” As my colleague Ryan points out below, this hardly makes for a collegial professional environment—but then, the same might be said of 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, The Office, and basically every workplace comedy ever.
Of the two leads, Alex is the more obviously pathetic, but it soon becomes evident that, beneath her glamorous armor, Helen is also a mess. Her apartment is covered with portraits of her late fiancé, and on most nights she prefers to stay at home guzzling red wine and listening repeatedly to “Fernando.” If I’m being scrupulously honest, this actually sounds pretty great, but you get the point: Helen is damaged goods.
Free Agents pairs a slightly emasculated male with an assertive female, a dynamic that feels almost obligatory in a post-Apatow world, but both characters are fully realized enough to transcend the cliché. Sure, Alex is a little needy, but he’s also charming, funny and looks like Hank Azaria. Likewise, Helen is far more interesting than the shrill, type-A, “single career gal in stilletos” stereotype. She’s tough and ambitious, but she’s also witty, vulnerable and complex. That’s right: Helen is a romantic female lead who actually seems like a real person.
The subject of Free Agents may be extremely contemporary, but its spirit is wonderfully old-fashioned; cell phones and casual sex notwithstanding, Free Agents recalls nothing so much as the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. Like those movies, Free Agents succeeds because of the chemistry between its uniquely appealing leads. Their repartee is playful and barbed without being mean, just as all good flirting should be. Helen takes Alex shopping for a new shirt because, she says, “You look like Willy Loman.” He rejects the shirt she picks out for him because “I have no plans to DJ at an Armenian gangster’s acquittal party.” As witty as Free Agents is, it’s also quite sweet, without being maudlin: Alex and Helen are drown to one another because of their mutual heartache.
As with virtually all American remakes of English shows, the major challenge for Free Agents will be stretching a six-episode story arc to fill a 22-episode season—that is, assuming NBC allows it to live for more than 6 episodes. Can the romantic tension between Alex and Helen possibly remain interesting for that long? I don’t know, but I sure hope I get to find out.
Ryan: Perhaps viewing Free Agents as a traditional workplace sit-com is the wrong approach to properly contextualize this new series. Instead, think of it as a stealth science-fiction show that takes place in a universe in which sexual harassment doesn’t exist. In this context, what unfolds in this show makes far more sense. Otherwise, it’s sound and fury signifying skeeviness. That’s too bad, as its central leads make for a winning pair at the center of a fairly terrible show. Having two 30somethings working their way back into the dating scene isn’t original, but the sadness lurking just barely under their surfaces makes this iteration stand out.
Focusing on their neuroses isn’t the easiest way towards comedy, but there’s fertile ground there should the show focus on that instead of the overly sexualized nature of the office in which both work. Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans may rejoice at seeing Anthony Head on the small screen again, but his Horny Giles routine wears thin almost instantly. Had the sexual speak been confined to offices, that would be one thing. But having a team meeting that starts off with a laundry list of sexual positions? It simply constructs a cartoonish world for two flesh-and-blood humans to attempt to inhabit. The dissonance between the central pair and everyone else should indicate how much these two are meant for each other. Instead, it creates a situation in which you wish Azaria and Hahn would simply find another show.