“Free Agents” doesn’t take the usual will they-or-won’t they approach to romantic comedy. It’s got a solid cast led by comedy veterans Hank Azaria, Kathryn Hahn and Anthony Head. Its creator was part of the team behind one of the funniest TV comedies of the past decade.
So, a less-traveled take on a familiar genre, good cast and good auspices should add up to a strong show, right? You would think.
Despite all that it would seem to have going for it, “Free Agents,” which debuts Wednesday (Sept. 14) on NBC, ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It’s a show I would really like to like, and there are elements present in the pilot that make me want to see how it’s doing by, say, episode four or five, but it’s not there yet.
Azaria (“The Simpsons,” “Huff”) and Hahn (“Crossing Jordan,” “Step Brothers”) play co-workers at a PR firm. He’s recently divorced, and her fiance died about a year ago. We open on them in bed together — so there’s that answer — but it pretty quickly becomes clear that the question isn’t “Will they?” so much as “Should they?”
And it’s hard to arrive at any other answer than “sweet lord, no” — which seems to be the central issue with “Free Agents.” For the comedy and the romance to work, we should at least think “Well …” Hahn’s Helen tells Azaria’s Alex in the premiere that he’s “an absolute mess,” and she’s not doing a whole lot better.
Would they be good for each other? Someday, probably — there are a few moments in the premiere where you can see the seeds of more than just a friendship. But right now it feels like they each need a therapist more than the other. And while you can find comedy in the way damaged people interact, “Free Agents” plays its central relationship almost too honestly to wring many laughs from it.
Still, Azaria and Hahn work well off one another, and even if it’s not all that funny, their relationship does feel reasonably believable. Azaria handles the damaged parts of Alex with sensitivity, and Hahn, who’s been stuck in a lot of best-friend roles in her career, proves plenty capable of handling a lead.
Unfortunately, they’re surrounded at work by a bunch of thinly drawn, one-note characters: the horndog (Mo Mandel), the beaten-down married guy (Al Madrigal), the sassy assistant (Natasha Leggero, who actually does a good amount with her limited role), the oddball security guard (Joe Lo Truglio). Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Manchild”), meanwhile, floats in for a couple scenes to be wildly but genially inappropriate.
Head also starred in the Britcom on which “Free Agents” is based, which aired for one season in 2009. It was mostly well-received, but reviews also noted (aside from the liberal use of super-filthy language that will be absent from NBC’s show) that it was as much drama as comedy. If that’s what the show wants to be, then that’s fine. But the NBC version is being sold as a straight comedy, and that’s what it feels like it’s trying to be. It’s just not a fully formed one at the moment.
Perhaps that will change, because the people in front of the camera and behind it — led by John Enbom, one of the creators of the fantastic “Party Down” — have done good work in the past. The hope here is that they pull things together, and that the show I want to like becomes one I actually do like.
“Free Agents” premieres at 10:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, Sept. 14 on NBC and moves to its regular time, 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, on Sept. 21.