Free Agents is one of those shows that, as a person who blogs about TV for a living, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I really enjoy this show for its lightning quick banter, for what I described last week as is screwball comedy sensibility. But I must also confess that, as a blogger trying to catch every joke, this very same rat-a-tat dialogue can be a bit of a nightmare—so much typing! so much rewinding!
Wrist cramps or not, I'll take it, because Free Agents is my favorite new network sitcom (there, I said it!). One of the things that I enjoy so much about this show is that it’s both sweet and cynical at the same time, without feeling inconsistent or confused tone-wise. Though I didn’t love "What I Did For Work" as much as last week’s pilot, I continue to be charmed by the show’s mix of old-fashioned wit and new-fangled attitudes toward love, sex, and the workplace. I also appreciate that Free Agents is a network sitcom willing to dabble in some dark humor, to find laughs in divorce, death, and loneliness. It's odd how refreshing pessimism can be.
On Free Agents, everyone’s default setting is skepticism; the women at the bar refuse Alex’s offer to buy champagne because they think it might be laced with roofies, and they readily recite biographical information about the BTK killer. So that's why the fleeting connection between Alex and Helen, which this week appeared to extend only to a movie-and-popcorn session on the couch, makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy. It's a rough world out there, and these two have found each other.
The show also makes some funny, trenchant observations about corporate culture. Andrew the Hedge Fund Guy flirts with Emma by telling her, “I e-mailed you the article about that biotech IPO. You guys should jump on their PR. Genome breakthrough. Large dollars.” Meanwhile, Helen wearily accepts that part of her job is to go out and flirt with clients. “I’ll smile, touch his arm, show some cleavage; it’ll be fine,” she says.
Helen is not some crazy Machiavellian temptress, but she is willing to be a little mercenary about her sexuality. It’s unclear whether she was always this brazenly flirtatious or whether she’s grown accustomed to the demands of her job. Either way, Alex gets jealous, and Helen teases him for it—though it’s pretty obvious she’s only teasing him to make him even more jealous. Since we're on the subject of Helen, can we just talk about how great Kathryn Hahn is for a minute? I think I have a new girl crush.
Soon enough, the roles are reversed, and it’s Alex who has to entertain fellow divorcee Harold. Naturally, he is terrified. After 12 years of married life, dating is like getting back on “a very complicated bike that takes most of your life to figure out.” The major theme so far on the show is the idea of putting on a brave face, both romantically and professionally (though there's not much of a distinction between those two things on this show, is there? I think that's the point). The contrast between Helen and Alex’s emotional vulnerability and the cool façade they have to project at the office is what gives this show a bit of edge.
Free Agents is far from a perfect show. You can tell the writers haven’t quite figured out what to do with the supporting characters, especially Dan, the spiky-haired bachelor. He’s a boor, we get it. This week, I was more intrigued by Emma, Alex's ball-busting secretary. I liked her anti-Spin Doctors tirade and her inability to grasp simple, abstract concepts. (“I’m confused. You just said the same word twice,” she responds when Helen asks her if she “like likes” Hedge Fund Guy). I think the key thing is that the supporting characters can be broad, but they must also be interesting, idiosyncratic. I’ve always thought the best part of the US version of The Office is its supporting characters, who are “zany” but not (all) easily reduced to stereotypes; how do you distill the essence of Creed or Dwight? Right now, Dan is just a douche, but he could be more. I also wish the show would make better use of Joe LoTruglio and Al Madrigal, who barely figured this week.
While I’m on the subject of negatives, the third-act twist—e.g. the women at the bar were prostitutes—drove home the “Alex has no game” point a little too emphatically. Likewise, Alex’s call for back-up yielded some funny moments—especially the two underage girls who recited a Harry Potter spell before downing shots—but the show is going to need to come up with some other scenarios for him.
That being said, being a critic (or blogger, or whatever) sometimes means being an advocate, so that’s why I’m hoping people give this show the chance to work out its kinks. It’s the only network sitcom this year that I watched and was excited to watch the following week. Maybe this just means I am getting old, but I'm not so sure (after all, 2 Broke Girls, with its trying-too-hard “hipster” references, weirdly dated depiction of New York City, and live studio laughter, somehow made me feel younger, as if I had been transported back in time). All the pieces are there for a great show—sharp writing, appealing leads, and a distinctive comedic voice. I just hope NBC doesn't lower the boom before then.