Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pilot Review: Free Agents

Free Agents (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC)

Free Agents is unlike the two previous new sitcoms I've reviewed this season. Whereas New Girl and Up All Night had few laugh-out-loud moments in their respective pilots, Free Agents has none. It doesn't come across as a comedy at all, actually. If this were fleshed out into an hour-long drama, it might've worked better. Because at its heart, it's not funny.

Coworkers Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) have just slept together, despite neither of them being in an emotional state worthy of beginning a new comittment. Alex's divorce has just gone through, and he is struggling with the fact that he will no longer see his kids on a daily basis; Helen's fiance suddenly died a year ago, and she is still clinging to the memory of him. They no longer know how to define their relationship, now crossing over from the professional into the personal. And it doesn't help that their other coworkers are trying to get them each to move on.

The two lead characters are in no way comedic. I'm sorry, but there's nothing inherently funny about seeing a grown man cry over not being able to attend his son's birthday party, or a grown woman drinking herself into oblivion surrounded by oversized portraits of her dead fiance. That's just not funny; it's sad and pathetic. I don't want to laugh at someone's emotional pain. Their scenes together play out like a Lifetime movie, from the awkward pillow talk to their attempts to hide their relationship in the office. The only thing keeping Free Agents from tumbling into full-on schmaltz are the mildly entertaining people Alex and Helen work with. Anthony Stewart Head is playing a role similar to Maya Rudolph's Ava on sister show Up All Night; his boss character is completely incongruous to the rest of the show and to real life, while the other characters seem to be based in a more realistic world. He begins a business meeting by inquiring about the positions in which Alex had sex the previous night and later appears in Alex's office with photos of some more, um, extreme positions. But he's entertaining in his strangeness, as is Mo Mandel as an oversexed frat boy type.

Hank Azaria is insufferably boring as Alex. If you can pick out a single facial expression (aside from his character's incessant crying), you have a better eye than I do. He stumbles through his scenes with a hangdog carriage, zapping any life from the already dull proceedings. Kathryn Hahn finds a bit more humor in her role, but it just doesn't feel right to be laughing at such a broken woman. One scene comes to mind in which Helen buys six bottles of wine and a single frozen dinner, and then verbally assaults the cashier for assuming she were throwing a party. She proclaims, loudly and not at all funnily, that she is going to go home and eat her meal and drink lots of wine alone. What's funny about that? Where is the comedy in a woman who has only found solace in meaningless sex with coworkers and tons of cheap wine?

And that's what it all really boils down to. The leads are supposed to be somewhat "damaged goods," but they come across as shattered beyond repair.

P.S. - The title of this show no longer makes sense. It is a remake of a British comedy about talent agents, but here they are PR spin doctors. Couple that with the fact that it's not even funny, what was the point of bringing this across the pond?

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