Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pilot Review: A to Z

A to Z (Thursdays at 9:30 on NBC; Premieres October 2)

There is such a thing as trying too hard to stick out. Comedies like Veep, Arrested Development, and others develop rabid followings because their characters (and the actors playing them) are a little off; Pushing Daisies stuck out because of its bold visual style and perspective; and there are countless other examples of shows that had a quirk to them that audiences and critics could latch onto. NBC's new romantic comedy A to Z tries to put all of them into one show, and it fails.
Andrew (Ben Feldman, Mad Men) works for an online dating firm, yet he is single. He's looking for the girl of his dreams, when Zelda (Cristin Milioti, How I Met Your Mother's namesake) walks into his office for a setup. Fate seems to draw the two of them together as they realize they have worked directly across the street from each other and randomly meet in parks and bars. The mismatched pair begin a tentative relationship, which A to Z will track from beginning to end.

There are some really tired bits here, particularly one of the opening moments when Andrew is introduced as "a guy's guy" who likes "sports and Liam Neeson movies." Oh, but you don't know everything about Andrew because he has a sensitive side: cut to Andrew singing along to "My Heart Will Go On" (Seriously, Titanic is almost twenty years old... when will writers realize those jokes aren't funny anymore?) and crashing his car after swallowing a bee. It's about as funny as it sounds, which is to say not at all. In fact, most of Ben Queen's (Cars 2) script is derivative, from the Pushing Daisies-esque narration performed by Katey Sagal to Andrew's schlubby, semi-creepy, bearded best friend who thinks he's a ladies man, played with charm but no real originality by Henry Zebrowski (I guess Tyler Labine wasn't available). And the narration isn't the only thing reminiscent of Pushing Daisies, with A to Z's awkwardly forced quirkiness and Andrew's eye-popping office, not to mention the extensive use of flashbacks. A to Z is meant for viewers who want cheesy romantic comedy tropes but have exhausted their DVD copies of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and don't want to pay for a ticket to see whatever chick flick is playing at the movies currently. It has the comfortable, been-there-done-that feeling of most formulaic rom-coms. There's absolutely nothing creative or unique on display here, just a lot of groan-worthy, saccharine moments like the serendipitous (called "destiny" over and over and over and over in the script) connection Zelda makes when she realizes Andrew works across the street from her. It's all way too hokey for me.

Aside from the issues I have with the actual material, I don't understand the game plan for A to Z. The opening voiceover tells us what happens with Andrew and Zelda: they break up after eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour. And considering the pilot's title is "A is for Acquaintances" and that this is one couple's beginning-to-end story, that assumes their short relationship will run its course in twenty-six episodes. If the show catches on, that could end up being a long first season (or two short seasons)... but then what happens next? Do we meet a new couple and follow their relationship? Do we lose the omniscient narration and see where the two characters go post-breakup? A to Z doesn't seem to have the big picture in mind just yet... or the small picture, considering how unoriginal and cliched the pilot is.

Still, all of this would be forgivable if the show were funny or, at the very least, enjoyable. I don't expect much from sitcoms nowadays; if they make me smile more than they make me roll my eyes, I consider it a win. A to Z misses that margin by a long shot with a whole lot of eye-rolling and not a single laugh or smile. The cast is snoozeworthy: Milioti has that slightly off look about her that made Zooey Deschanel a star, but she doesn't have much in the way of comedic timing; and Feldman seems perpetually nervous, always red in the face and wide-eyed. Even Katey Sagal sounds bored doing her voiceover bits. Perhaps she's the only one who realized how uninteresting A to Z is.

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