Prickliness and Polish
Free Agents seems likely to succeed or fail right away. An American adaptation of the British Channel 4 comedy series of the same name, it combines familiar TV genres: on top of taking a humorously askew perspective on a pair of friends trying to “get back in the saddle” after romances gone wrong, it is also a workplace comedy.
NBC has a fine track record with workplace comedies, and it’s that element of Free Agents, guided by a soft-spoken yet savagely funny Anthony Stewart Head as an annoying boss, that grants the show its best chance of finding an audience. But it’s set back immediately by a “Will they or won’t they?” premise. The problem is first apparent in the curious casting of Hank Azaria: sadly, his broad comedic talents don’t feel like an appropriate fit here. He plays Alex, an employee at a public relations agency who finds himself recently divorced and in bed one evening with his longtime coworker Helen (Kathryn Hahn).
As her fiancé passed away a year ago of a freak heart condition, Helen knows something about emotional messiness and the difficulties of recovery, and so, she’s quick to point out to Alex that his sudden crying spasm after sex is a major turn-off. Alex takes the offensive, pointing out the deranged number of portraits of the dead fiancé hanging in her apartment. Helen calls him a cab.
Following their one-night stand, Helen insists she is not interested in a relationship with Alex, but is committed to assisting in his post-divorce rehabilitation. This plot focus introduces fellow coworkers Dan (Mo Mandel) and Gregg (Al Madrigal), already strategizing to get Alex back into the dating world. When bachelor Dan comes up with a double date, Alex reluctantly accepts, and Helen drags him on a shopping trip for new clothes.
However, the lingering attraction between the two continues to bubble, requiring the deployment of their friendship safe word (“potato”) to mitigate their moments of “I want to kiss you” eye contact. When Helen drunkenly calls up Alex in the middle of his double date, he excuses himself to go rescue her from a wine-soaked attempt to remove her all those dead-guy pictures from her living room, whereupon Alex notices a massive portrait covered in lipstick stains. So much for Helen’s claims that she’s healthy and emotionally stable.
Alex and Helen’s friendship seems sweet enough. And it’s certainly more convincing than their awkward sexual union, if only because Azaria makes a more appealing best friend or big brother than romantic partner. He’s the series’ weakest link, his bland attempts at black comedy tinged with a strangely humorless sadness. With any luck, his performance is a consequence of the pilot’s need to set up the plot, since “depressed divorce” is a limiting descriptor. Here’s hoping that Alex is livelier in future episodes, and loses his tendency to self-pity.
Hahn, on the other hand, is feisty and assertive from the start, as good at witty verbal exchanges as she is at coming unglued. Helen’s lurching between cool-headed and hysterical is on display in two superb sequences at a grocery checkout where she feels judged for buying Lean Cuisines, sherbet, and wine for one. One wrong comment from the cashier and the crazy comes out.
Helen and Alex’s uneven emotional trajectory is set against the wickedly cheeky Stephen (Head, reprising his role from the Channel 4 series). Head of the public relations agency where Alex and Helen work, Stephen might remind viewers of Michael Scott, but Head brings a new angle on the “bad boss.” Where Steve Carell’s character was a sad, impotent man and fundamentally innocent, Stephen is just not. He’s a ball-buster and disconcertingly oblivious to those around him.
Head (previously best known as Rupert Giles, Buffy’s Watcher) is the standout in this cast. The somewhat absent-minded and brash Stephen is a flashy role with infinite scene-stealing opportunities, here demonstrated in an exchange regarding the details of a sex position called the “Flying Dutchman,” which Stephen reveals with an ambiguously framed photo and the suggestion that it’s easier with a third person or a “sturdy woman.”
Stephen’s antics seem more conspicuous in the context of the somewhat glossy and austere work environment. The British series’ creator Chris Niel is on board at NBC as a writer and co-executive producer, and takes a co-writing credit on the pilot. This may explain the show’s simultaneous prickliness and polish, different from typically overstated American sitcoms. Think of it as a sleek foil to 30 Rock or The Office, without the circus-like atmosphere. These initial 23 minutes offer a promising mix of rapid banter, smart cultural references, and delightful absurdity.