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Free Agents Review: "Pilot" (Episode 1.01)

September 15, 2011  |  12:15pm
<em>Free Agents</em> Review: "Pilot" (Episode 1.01)

Free Agents arrives with a good pedigree. It’s overseen by Party Down co-creator and Veronica Mars writer John Enbom, and features a core of talented and likable actors in Hank Azaria, Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers, Our Idiot Brother), Joe Lo Truglio (The State, Superbad), and Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). How did this crew turn out the feeble half-hour that aired on NBC last night?

Sitcoms often take a while to find their voice. Remember the first season of Parks & Recreation? But part of Free Agents’ problem might be the show’s true origin. Free Agents is another adaptation of a British sitcom, and like the first few episodes of the American Office, the pilot largely recreates the British pilot’s script. It took The Office four or five episodes to establish itself, and with Enbom in charge and a promising cast Free Agents could hit its stride just as quickly. The pilot already contains glimpses of a good show.

Those moments mostly involve Azaria, Hahn, and Lo Truglio. Azaria is a public relations pro in Portland struggling with a divorce and a newly empty home. His co-worker Hahn’s fiance died suddenly a year before. Their sorrow and loneliness pulls them into bed at the start of the show, and over the rest of the episode they debate internally and externally whether they’re ready for a new relationship, especially with a co-worker. Neither character’s pain is played too broadly, and both actors find the humor in their situations without overwhelming or overplaying the drama. And Lo Truglio’s brief appearances as a gregarious security guard are the episode’s comedic highlights.

Azaria and Hahn do their best, but the material lets them down. An early scene where Azaria runs through a series of made-up sexual positions at a workplace meeting isn’t just hackneyed but utterly unbelievable in a world where discussing a Seinfeld episode around the water-cooler can result in a sexual harassment case. The banter is overly wordy and not quite witty enough. Hahn’s grocery store diatribe and her subsequent drunken stupor are the only non-Lo Truglio moments that are genuinely funny.

Free Agents won’t last long coasting on the charisma of its leads, especially since every other character is actively grating. Head’s oversexed rogue is a boring sitcom stock type whose familiarity with such positions as the Flying Dutchman is neither funny nor edgy. Other than Azaria, Hahn, and Lo Truglio, every other character is an obnoxious stereotype, from the spiky-haired frat-douche searching for a wingman (you can almost smell the Axe body spray) to the catty executive assistant whose constant attitude and putdowns are simply mean-spirited instead of clever. Head’s few scenes are too brief to do true damage, but the show derails as soon as either of these other two cartoon characters show up. Al Madrigal’s awkward married sadsack has potential for growth, but is a walking one-note joke in the pilot.

All these issues can be worked out in subsequent episodes. Free Agents might have a future if it can deliver scripts that match the cast and tone down the annoying side characters. That’s assuming that viewers will stick around to see what happens after this bummer of a debut, of course.

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