As I said yesterday, judging a TV show based on its pilot episode is often a fool’s errand, and that’s even more true of a sitcom pilot than one for a drama. When you think back on the strong comedies of the last decade, how many of them were great starting with their very first episode? Very few. “Arrested Development” comes immediately to mind (“Modern Family,” too), but “The Office” pilot is terrible, the “Parks and Recreation” pilot is very problematic (and most of its first season should be written off), “30 Rock” took about a half-season to find itself, etc. You may see seeds of what the show would become, but most sitcom pilots are works in progress at best, as writers figure out how to best exploit their premise (or whether to quickly ignore it) and the strengths and weaknesses of their actors. If you watch the “How I Met Your Mother” pilot, for instance, you can see that show’s romantic side was already clicking, but Barney is dialed up several notches past the level the writers and Neil Patrick Harris would quickly find worked best.
So my dislike for most of this fall’s comedy pilots doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be a bad season for new comedies. But it does mean that I have to dig a little deeper for clues about what shows might start to work down the road, and how, starting with this season’s first two new comedies: NBC’s “Up All Night” and “Free Agents.”
(The two debut tomorrow night at 10 & 10:30, respectively – with NBC trying to use the “America’s Got Talent” finale to give them a good debut audience – before moving to 8 and 8:30 next Wednesday night.)
“Up All Night” is by far the stronger of the two right now (though I still have reservations about it), while the “Free Agents” pilot mostly doesn’t work, but in both cases you have to look at the talent of the people involved in front of and behind the camera as much as you do the finished pilots.
“Up All Night” stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as a happily-married couple whose carefree, hard-partying lifestyle gets upended when they have their first baby and have to adjust to a life with little sleep, many messes and few opportunities to get out into the world to be among grown-ups.
This is all well-traveled territory – for both parents and to sitcoms – but creator Emily Spivey (“Parks and Recreation”) has a good eye for detail and how to make universal concepts seem specific (and vice versa). Arnett’s Chris stays home to be the baby’s primary caretaker while Applegate’s Reagan returns to her job as a daytime talk show producer, and the show has a lot of fun with Chris being overwhelmed by tasks he used to do easily before he became a dad. (He goes to the supermarket and can’t find the cheese.) After one long, difficult night with the baby, Reagan and Chris have an argument over who got less sleep that will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever taken care of an infant. There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments, but the parenting stuff is sharply-observed, and it’s great to see Arnett playing a recognizable human being after spending years trying to (or being asked to) recreate GOB Bluth from “Arrested Development.”
The workplace scenes – with Maya Rudolph as Ava, the talk show’s host and Reagan’s boss – are more wobbly. In an earlier version of the pilot, Ava and Reagan were in celebrity PR, and while the change in profession seems mainly an excuse to showcase Rudolph after the success of “Bridesmaids” by letting her do a variation on her Oprah impression from “SNL” (where Spivey also used to work), both versions are a bit louder and more cartoonish than the at-home material. (On the plus side, Ava is less of an oblivious dolt when it comes to the challenges Reagan faces as a new mom than she was in the original pilot, which suggests Spivey can improve things as she goes.)
Ultimately, though, what you have is a comedy with three very talented, funny leads(*), with a premise that lends itself well to stories and jokes, and execution that isn’t quite there yet. These circumstances don’t always lead to success – Arnett and Applegate are coming off of, respectively, “Running Wilde” and “Samantha Who,” neither of which were ever consistently good – but it’s at least a promising beginning.
(*) Rudolph in particular seems like someone the entertainment industry hasn’t quite figured out how to use properly yet, but when somebody does – whether it’s Spivey or someone else – look out. She’s ridiculously gifted and versatile, and the trick will be to find a way to incorporate most or all of those talents into a single role, so she can be both human-scale and larger-than-life at different times (akin to Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope), can sing, etc.
“Up All Night” at least has the seeds of a potentially funny show. With “Free Agents,” you have to look harder at the talent involved – and some of NBC’s history with foreign remakes – to see the upside.
Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn play colleagues at a corporate PR firm who fall into bed together one night, then grapple with the realization that they’re each too big a mess to be involved with the other. He’s recently-divorced, sleeps in his office and cries every time he thinks of his kids, while she’s still getting over the sudden death of her fiance, whose face smiles out at her throughout her apartment from studio portraits they had taken right before he died.
Azaria and Hahn are both talented comedians, and the showrunner is John Enbom, who was the head writer on Starz’s brilliant-but-canceled “Party Down,” but they’ve combined to make a pilot that’s much more awkward than funny. Azaria’s Alex is such a wreck of a human being that he almost feels like he should be the main character on a cable dramedy (like Showtime’s “Huff,” which Azaria headlined for two seasons), but “Free Agents” is trying to be a more a straight-ahead comedy, and in that context most of his scenes just made me uncomfortable. Hahn fares a bit better when she’s allowed to go on her own (there’s a scene where she has a meltdown at a grocery store checkout line that feels closest in tone to what I think “Free Agents” could be if it was better), and there are a couple of nice moments on the margins involving Joe Lo Truglio as a security guard who becomes Alex’s after-hours buddy, but the other supporting characters seem either shrill (Mo Mandel as the token office d-bag, Natasha Leggero as Alex’s cold assistant) or flat (Al Madrigal as the married guy all the singles pick on).
“Free Agents” is a remake of a British series (which BBC America is going to start airing it on October 8), which I hadn’t seen before watching the American pilot. Getting back to “The Office,” one of the reasons that show’s pilot was so bad was that it was a beat-for-beat remake of the first episode of the British original with Ricky Gervais, only most of the jokes didn’t work coming from Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer and company. It wasn’t until that show started turning Michael Scott into his own man and not David Brent with a different accent that it started to work. And several years before “The Office,” NBC tried to do a remake of the popular Britcom “Coupling” that largely adapted the original scripts, with disastrous results; the only non-terrible episode that aired featured a brand-new set of stories.
I was curious to see if this was another case of NBC unwisely asking a producer to duplicate the original rather than starting from scratch – both versions even star Anthony Stewart Head as the lecherous boss – and eventually checked out the UK pilot. And the first half is fairly similar – in content, at least – to what you’ll see on NBC, with many of the jokes repeated, albeit often toned down to factor in the difference between what your characters can say on Channel 4 in the UK versus Channel 4 in the US. (Head’s character, unsurprisingly, suffers mightily in a less-filthy context.) The second half of each pilot goes its own way, but the largest difference is one of tone. The British show accepts that this is the story of two very damaged individuals and is willing to confront that damage early and often – sometimes seriously and sometimes in black comic fashion. Whether by choice or NBC fiat, Enbom has placed these same characters into a much lighter style, and the fit doesn’t work.
Maybe in time, Enbom will be able to adapt the material to better fit both his actors and his network. (Even “Party Down” took a few episodes to really find itself.) I just don’t know how much time he’ll have. After the “Got Talent” lead-in this week, “Up All Night” and “Free Agents” will be on their own on a night where NBC hasn’t had comedy success in this century. If they don’t work, and NBC has to throw one of them a life raft by moving it to Thursdays, it’ll almost certainly be “Up All Night,” which has the more high-profile stars and Lorne Michaels as a producer, and is the one that will be getting the better reviews at this stage.
Again, comedy pilots are rolls of the dice. It’s entirely possible that “Free Agents” could either become a good comedy – or, at least, a better comedy than “Up All Night” – by episode 4, or the promise of the “Up All Night” pilot could be realized quickly, or neither show could learn to properly harness the talent involved. We don’t know at this point. But all I have to work with are these pilots, and if you’re going to make time for one of them this week, it’s “Up All Night.”
(And since we’re now giving grades for new series reviews on HitFix, and since the grading system can’t give two separate grades in the same post, I would give the “Up All Night” pilot a B- and the “Free Agents” pilot a C.)
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com