There’s a moment in the pilot for NBC’s “Free Agents” in which a reference is made to the “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” episode of “Party Down,” one of the finest episodes in the first season of that short-lived Starz favorite. It’s a reference that’s only there for the miniscule overlapping audience that will realize that John Enbom wrote that “Party Down” episode and also is responsible for translating the British “Free Agents” property for NBC.
In several conversations, Sepinwall used the line as proof that something — even if it was only one piece of tossed off dialogue — in “Free Agents” was actually funny.
I wasn’t amused.
In fact, I was annoyed.
If the only plausibly funny thing in your entirely unfunny pilot is a reference to something you were previously involved with that actually was/is funny, that’s just rubbing salt in the wound that comes from suffering through the current unfunny project in the first place.
Or, to put it in a different way, if the only indication that your pilot comes from somebody with the talent to have been involved with “Party Down” is that it directly references “Party Down,” you’re probably in trouble.
Then again, being the least funny comedy on a network that also has “Whitney” is about a good a sign of trouble as I can possibly imagine.
And “Free Agents” is in trouble. The sympathetic part of me would like to believe that the roster of talent associated with “Free Agents,” from Enbom on down, is so good that subsequent episodes are almost guaranteed to get back. The cynical part of me figures that if a roster of talent this good was capable of making a pilot this bad, all bets are off.
More after the break, but only a bit more. [I’ve got a “Survivor” premiere to recap in a bit and then I have to write a “Secret Circle” review. These are busy days and eventually there’ll be a new fall show I won’t review, but it’s much too early for me to drop the ball for the first time.]
In some ways, “Free Agents” is less a bad NBC comedy and more a bad ABC comedy, since it has a Masculinity In Crisis aftertaste.
Hank Azaria plays Alex, a newly divorced corporate public relations strategist on the brink of an emotional collapse. Actually, as we meet Alex, he’s probably past that brink, since his post-coital awkwardness with co-worker Helen is only worsened when he breaks into tears at the thought of missing his kid’s birthday party. Alex breaks into tears a lot. And he thinks that his one-night stand with Helen is the sign of a relationship. You see, he’s exhibiting traits that aren’t traditionally masculine and “Free Agents” asks us to either find this hilarious, or to be really uncomfortable that this desperate attempt to mine laughter from gender non-traditional behavior is being pushed at the expense of a character who probably needs counseling. [I feel like I reference “Free To Be You And Me” fairly frequently in this blog, but “Free Agents” leaves little doubt that while Marlo Thomas may have given men carte blanche to cry several decades ago, it’s no longer acceptable masculine behavior unless you want to be laughed at.]
Helen has problems of her own. She had a fiance. He died. She still has 22 pictures of him in her office and several more in her bedroom. But Helen has distanced herself from that loss and she’s done so by exhibiting behaviors that are traditionally masculine. She’s bottling up all emotion and she’s perfectly happy to keep her liaison with Alex as a zipless f***. [Yes, I’ve now had consecutive paragraphs with references to “Free To Be You And Me” and Eric Jong. There’s absolutely no logic to where my mind goes after several nights of fitful sleep.]
Am I describing a funny show for you yet? It’s all about execution. And the execution here is bad.
Helen and Alex work in an office of obnoxious people, who all want to have really unfunny conversations about sex and don’t really do very much work and when work is introduced, it has nothing to do with the plot and it’s never mentioned again. Overseeing the office, is Anthony Head’s Stephen, who apparently said really hilarious and inappropriate things in the British version, but has been sanitized so that he just says things that make him seem nosey and British. Merely having a nosey, British boss isn’t enough for comedy and none arises. This is the sort of character who can be quite funny when able to go to extremes, but Head’s Stephen is pointlessly mellow. He’s definitely less aggressively annoying than Mo Mandell’s grating, horny Dan and Al Madrigal’s nerdy, married Gregg. But again, none are funny. And then, because everybody’s insecure about the amount of comedy in what is supposed to be a comedy pilot, Natasha Leggero and Joe LoTruglio are trotted out to more actively mug as comic relief characters.
None of the supporting characters are able to develop any comedic rhythms and there’s no visual or timing laughs to be found here, which speaks to the disappointingly soft direction by Todd Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Wonderfalls”) who is, at his best, one of the most talented single-camera comedy directors in the business. This is not Holland at his best. Neither Holland nor Enbom has any grasp on what the tone or flow of “Free Agents” ideally should be and because they don’t get a single beat correctly, I couldn’t begin to step back and say “‘Free Agents’ would work better if it concentrated more on…” or “‘Free Agents’ should stop trying to be… and start trying to be…” There’s no setting or character or thematic strand in this pilot that succeeds enough for me to suggest them as the centerpiece of a better “Free Agents.” I’m at a loss, which is part of my hesitation to think that the show is magically going to find itself in later episodes.
I think that Kathryn Hahn is the better of the two leads. The veteran scene-stealer has no chemistry with Azaria, but there were fleeting moments in which Hahn would have a fleeting reaction or a simple line-reading that made me think there was an unexplored life there that might prove fruitful, though I don’t know if it would be better developed in a different sitcom or a different drama. It’s sad to see an actress who is usually so good at playing supporting roles getting a rare lead and having this happen.
There’s a similar sadness with Azaria, but it feels a bit more self-inflicted. There’s a hamminess to aspects of Azaria’s work in this pilot that’s a major culprit in the overall tonal imbalance. Thanks to “Huff,” we know Azaria can be a dramatic leading man. And we have volumes of evidence that Azaria can do showy supporting comedy. But is it possible he can’t be a straight-forward comedic leading man? Or is he just not being well-served by a script that traps him in a single emotional rut for 22 minutes? Or did he need more guidance from Holland?
Being bad is easy, but being this frustratingly bad is far harder. I can point at what is atrocious in “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” or “Work It” or “Whitney” and tell you exactly where they fail and predict the likelihood that they might eventually succeed. Those shows don’t frustrate me like “Free Agents” does, because all I can tell you about this pilot is, “It’s not funny. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t know what it wants to be” and in light of the cast and the creator and the series director, that doesn’t feel like quite enough.
So I’m just going to hope that whatever ephemeral dark cloud hung over “Free Agents” as a pilot blew away by the time the writing staff sat down to draft the second episode. Enbom and Holland know how to do comedy and Enbom knows, in particular, how to capture the hilarity of a dysfunctional workplace. You wouldn’t know it from watching the pilot and if I don’t see some evidence by the second episode, I’ll be making a quick exit and I’m sure more than a few viewers will join me.
Since it’s not like the plot is all that hard to follow, maybe you all want to steer clear until somebody you respect (doesn’t have to be me) tells you that the gears have finally clicked?
“Free Agents” premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 10:30 p.m. but will actually air on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. starting next week.