Reviewing a new TV series can be part detective work and part psychic reading. You try to not only judge the finished pilot you’re looking at, but get a sense of where it’s come from (the history of its talent or influences, any source material), intuit where it’s heading next (from the performances, the writing/direction and the general sense that the show knows its characters) and draw a line through those points to guesstimate where it’s going to end up.
Tonight, NBC previews two new comedies, Up All Night and Free Agents—relationship comedies of very different types—and with only the pilot to go on for each, I’m hopeful for one and less so for the other.
First, the good news. Up All Night is a comedy about parenting—hardly a new subject, but it focuses particularly on that particular, groggy slice that comes with your first newborn. The opening sequence,which hurtles Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) from pregnancy test to parenthood in seconds, capturing neatly the experience of first-time parenthood: one minute you’re setting your own hours and swearing at will, the next, you have a tiny, squalling, leaking human being to keep alive.
Two months after Baby Amy arrives, Reagan goes back to work and Chris takes off from his law career to stay home with the baby. What I like best about this arrangement is how matter-of-fact Up All Night is about it. It’s not dwelled on that Reagan, the mom, went back to work: it’s just what they chose. And while Chris is freaked out and overwhelmed—a quest for “the normal cheese” at the supermarket becomes a crisis of self-worth—it’s not because he’s a guy; it’s because he’s a new parent, doing the oldest job in the world for the first time.
There’s a sweet, good-hearted minuteness of observation to the show, which manages to work in middle-of-the-night wakings and diaper changes without going for obvious gags; a spat between Reagan and Chris over who’s slept more recently rigs 100% true (and 100% funny) without turning them into the Bickersons. Applegate strikes a perfect balance between being exhausted and showing you that she can’t afford to be exhausted, goddamnit; and Arnett adapts surprising well to the role of an earnest, trying-to-be-responsible adult rather than smug manchild (Arrested Development; every other Arnett sitcom role).
The big change since the original pilot I saw is in Maya Rudolph’s character, which has been altered and beefed up. (Perhaps not a direct result of her appearance in Bridesmaids, but that couldn’t have hurt.) She now plays Ava, the demanding host of a daytime talk show that Reagan produces. In the original, Rudolph played Reagan’s single coworker who couldn’t grasp how parenting has changed her friend’s life and ability to party.
Making her Reagan’s boss–and a needy, neurotic handful–sets up far more potential work storylines, putting more focus on the new-parent problem of finding you can’t commit to the same kinds of all-nighters now that you’re pulling them with a baby. Building on office life also addresses a concern I had about the first version—that it felt a little claustrophobic, focused entirely on four characters, one of whom can’t talk. And Rudolph—Oprah on SNL—is a natural for the reconceived role. My concern now is whether the writers have decided who Ava’s character is: she could be an obstacle—a demanding, slightly clueless decent boss whose fabulously wealthy life has little in common with Reagan’s. But the pilot still has a slot for a best friend character, and it seems as though Ava has to fill that role too, finding reasons to drop by Reagan’s house unannounced and sing karaoke with them.
It all could work; I just want to see in future episodes that the producers aren’t changing her character to fit the needs of the plot of the week. But for now, I’m glad to see that this baby has some room to grow.
Now the not-so-good news. Free Agents was adapted from a British comedy (airing next month on BBC America) and it has all kinds of talent associated with it. In front of the camera: Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn—as two coworkers in a PR firm who sleep together one night—and Anthony Head, who originated his role as their raunchy-minded boss in the UK version. Behind the camera: producer-creator John Enborn (Party Down) and director Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle). And the source sitcom, while not a classic, is a well-done dark comedy about two damaged people starting over again romantically.
So what went wrong? The pilot, like the original, spins out the postcoital complications for Alex (Azaria) and Helen (Hahn), rebounding from the ugly breakup of his marriage and the sudden death of her fiance, respectively. Hank is not really over that rough experience—really not over it, as he shows by breaking down in tears at the thought of his kids while still in bed with Helen. At work, they decide to keep their relationship on the down-low, while deciding if it is, in fact, a relationship.
All this, more or less, comes from the British original, as well as most of the jokes (made PG-13 for American broadcast). What we lose in the US Free Agents pilot is the sense of emotional commitment to the situations of the characters. In the British version, the male lead (Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) is as much a wreck as Alex, or more, right down to the crying and the loneliness; he’s a man who needs to be in a relationship. The show doesn’t flinch from his loss (or his co-star’s mourning), but in powering through that darkness, it finds its way to being both sympathetic and raunchily funny.
The US pilot, on the other hand, isn’t willing to be as dark—the real difference, beyond swear words, between NBC and BBC—and as a result, it seems flippant toward his characters. Alex and Helen still have real problems; they just come off more laughable for having them, especially Alex, who is portrayed as a nebbishy sad sack. (I can’t entirely blame Azaria, who is playing Alex like a legitimate dramatic role, but in a pilot that treats him as half a a wuss for it.)
We’ve just finished a second season of Louie, which manages to be both sobbingly funny and unflinchingly honest about telling the story of a screwed-up divorced dad. Free Agents, on the other hand, feels like it’s retreating to a sitcom safe zone—”Whoops! These coworkers slept together! Ha ha, that dude keeps crying!” All of which makes me wonder whether Enbom could have made a better adaptation for Starz (home of Party Down) or the equivalent, where he could keep both the R-rated sex humor and the ability to get to the comedy through darkness.
He didn’t, though. What he does have is a network sitcom perch, the kernel of a very strong sitcom idea and some pretty great people on his payroll, so I can’t write Free Agents off. (The workplace setting—a crisis PR firm, which in the pilot has to spin a food-safety disaster for an egg company—also has a lot of potential.) But I’m not ready to commit the this show until the show is ready to commit to its premise.