I have a confession to make: I can’t quite decide if I like the new half hour comedy (I refused to call anything a “sitcom” anymore) “Free Agents”. I recognize that for the purposes of someone reading a review about a show to determine whether they should like it, this is problematic; your reviewer is already putting up her hands in the first sentence, an implied shrug as if to say, “um, let me think about it.” I will now proceed to think about it out loud, to you, fearless reader.
Let’s pretend for a moment that I like the show. It isn’t actually that difficult, because the show has a lot to like: Hank Azaria, for starters. This guy has been solid comedy gold for years. He’s the man of a million voices on “The Simpsons,” and has made a career out of playing perfectly crafted secondary characters in film and television. This time, he’s the lead, and part of me is really happy for him. I want Hank to be a lead. I want his charm and wit to entertain me every week. Given the right material, I’d probably watch a show where Azaria just sits in a chair rambling for thirty minutes.
“Free Agents” has a good pedigree. While not every British show can be repurposed successfully for American audiences, this one feels like a good translation, not like there’s some weird British-ness missing. It’s a workplace comedy and a relationship comedy. Those are pretty much low hanging fruit on the comedy tree. The team behind this show includes John Enbom, who was a big success factor in “Party Down.” Then we add in a constant, something that connects the show to its British roots and yet helps carry it to an American audience: Anthony Stewart Head. Head played the same role, that of the slightly chauvinistic and certainly oversexed boss of Azaria’s workplace. Head steals every scene he occupies, stamping his watermark all over it so no one thinks they can come back later and claim he didn’t.
So, halfway through the review, it sounds like I might like this show for real, and not just be pretending. And then…
Two things immediately set off my ‘I’m not loving this show’ radar while I watched the pilot. First, I’m not sold on Kathryn Hahn as Helen, the romantic (or non-romantic) foil for Hank’s Alex. She just doesn’t feel like a fully realized character (her best moment is a few grades better than the ‘wallow in a romcom eating ice cream’ that we usually get from characters who are single women in their 30s). The premise of the show is this: Helen and Alex work in the same office together. They’ve just slept together for the first time, not out of some long-burning desire, but seemingly out of loneliness. Alex has just gone through a divorce and Helen’s still mourning the death of her fiancée a year later (and still harbors a lot of creepy pictures of the two of them around her apartment). Comedy gold, right? And yet, I wasn’t laughing. Don’t get me wrong, I like Hahn, but I just didn’t sense the chemistry between her and Azaria. Maybe that’s the point – after all the characters aren’t exactly in love with each other. They’re both trying to move on with their messy, complicated lives. I could learn to love their friendship and “maybe they will (again) or won’t” relationship, except that I find their workplace reprehensible.
And that’s the other thing causing me not to embrace the show. I hate all of the workplace comedy. The workplace for Helen and Alex and their boss Stephen (Head) is a PR firm. Aside from the one other female in the office (the assistant Emma, played by Natasha Leggero), it’s a boys’ club. There’s a lot of sex talk, which in the real world would slap you with sexual harassment lawsuits faster than Leggero can say something snarky (as is how all assistants are in the real world). This place is Neanderthal levels of misogyny and the two women in the show just play along. It’s actually a little creepy that at no point does anyone say ‘hey, maybe we shouldn’t be discussing degrading sexual acts which are to be found in the Urban Dictionary during a meeting.’ This may be my prudish side talking, but I just wasn’t buying it.
There’s just no conflict between these characters that I find intriguing. There are no problems to be overcome — it’s a very white world with very middle to upper class dilemmas, which I just don’t find all that interesting. That’s probably the biggest condemnation I have – it just isn’t that interesting.
When it comes time for me to write these reviews, I always ask myself the same question, do I want to watch the second episode of this show? Most shows, even the ones I’m not sold on, I will always want to give a second chance, and “Free Agents” is no different. I can’t deny my curiosity; can this show evolve into a great modern screwball comedy? This could be the show I look back on and wonder why I didn’t just love the first episode. Unfortunately, I’m also a realist. I know my history of television shows, and the history says that if it doesn’t grab me with at least a desire to watch these characters and their world, then others probably aren’t going to want to watch it either. If no one watches, the show will go away. I’ll feel sad for Azaria and Head and Enbom for a moment, but then I know they’ll find something else for their talents in the future. If “Free Agents” fails as a show, I’ll still be able to sleep at night.
I’ve now written more about this show as a completely indifferent review than any other show this year. I’m not sure what that says about me as a tv viewer and critic. I might need therapy.
“Free Agents” premieres on NBC on Wednesday September 14th at 10:30 PM Eastern/Pacific.