Thursday, September 15, 2011

FREE AGENTS: The Best New Sitcom To Premiere On NBC On Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 10:30pm EDT

I did my best to capture the spirit of this series in the title of this blog post.  Titles of posts normally come pretty easily to me, but I really struggled with this one.  I'm going to do something else in the format of the show.  I guess Public Relations people like to use white boards to discuss the pros/cons and positives/negatives of certain situations.  That's probably the best way to begin attacking this show.  I will try to put as many two way words, or statements, as I can into this blog post, because P.R. is all about telling people what they want to hear, or what they want people to hear.

The White Board of Free Agents:

Positives                                                                     
Hank Azaria                                                                 
Anthony Head (Stephen, the boss)                                
Emma (the Executive Assistant character)                      
Some interesting, quirky stuff happens                            
Relatively pleasing production values                             
Funny scene that I have been through many times in real life        
                                                                                    
Negatives
Kathryn Hahn
Dan (the not grown up frat boy character)
Gregg character given too many lines
Hank Azaria seems puzzled
Casting could be much better, overall
The series premise is a mountain to climb
Focuses too much on ancillary characters' stories
Workplace romance that no one seems to notice

Okay, that's a start.  I'm not really sure how I feel about this series, so far, but I still see it has potential.  I'm just trying to make the best out of a bad situation.  I definitely had some good laughs in the episode, but it's kind of a weird little show.  The series is based on a British sitcom (because NBC is the most original network on TV!).

This series most reminds me of another British adapted series, from the late 1980s, called Dear John.  As opposed to being set in a support group for divorced people, Free Agents decides to have its stories revolve around the office.  We all know that workplace romances can often not go as planned, so this series has a lot of work to do to bring the viewers to a place that we can accept.  Just like my Up All Night blog post, I will do a little ratings bit, and then get on to who and what the show is all about.
   
Free Agents 15 minute ratings provided by TV by the Numbers:

10:30-10:45

- 6.546 million viewers
- 4.2/7 HH
- 2.2/6 A18-49

10:45-11:00

- 5.694 million viewers
- 3.7/7 HH
- 1.9/5 A18-49

It's important to note that this followed Up All Night, and it did not get nearly as many viewers.  From top to bottom, every friend of mine on facebook who has talked about this show did not like it.  Gina H. even said that she turned the show off after 10 minutes.  Gina, it did get better, but I can understand why people would be turned off by the show.  A key point about the ratings is that the show put up good numbers, for a sitcom on NBC.  The bad news is that it will definitely not sustain those numbers, once it moves to Wednesdays at 8:30pm EDT.  I'm going to put this series toward the top of my list of series that are likely to get canceled, due to poor ratings.  NBC has a pretty low bar when it comes to sitcoms, in general, so the series may last a full season, even with poor ratings.  Right now, it's basically programming for people who don't want to watch anything else.

The Characters:

Alex (Hank Azaria)
Helen (Kathryn Hahn)
Stephen (Anthony Head)
Emma (Natasha Leggero)
Dan (Mo Mandel)
Gregg (Al Madrigal)
Walter (Joe Lo Truglio)

In the spirit of the whiteboard, I'm going to break down Alex's character exactly the way they did.  These descriptions of positives and negatives were written on a whiteboard to describe Alex, while they were doing an "intervention".  It tells you nearly everything you need to know about the character, though I will elaborate on him later.  I'll outline all of the characters, in the same way, using my own descriptions.

The Alex Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job

Negatives
Looks?
Baggage
Kids
Old
Divorce
Moody
Depressed
Sloppy
Lonely

The Helen Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job apparently as a team partner with Alex
Occasionally has funny lines

Negatives
Has a portrait fetish of her dead fiance
Has a major drinking problem
Has an apparent fear of commitment
Lonely

The Stephen Whiteboard:

Positives
Owns the company
Wickedly funny
Tremendous comedic timing

Negatives
Creepy
Does not censor himself

The Emma Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job as an Executive Assistant
Wickedly funny
Great deadpan delivery
Apparently very good at her job

Negatives
Does not work well with people
Does not play well with people
Does not use tact
Does not care who she offends

The Dan Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job of I don't know what he does
Is a very positive thinker

Negatives
Is very immature
Asks way too many personal questions
Has a frat boy mentality
Is not empathetic
Is kind of a d-bag

The Gregg Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job of I don't know what he does
Is a positive thinker

Negatives
Has completely lost the ability to censor what he's thinking
Speaks in situations that are inappropriate in inappropriate ways
Has a desire to live vicariously through others
Will not give up trying to get to do something no matter how many times he is rebuffed

The Walter Whiteboard:

Positives
Has a job as a night Security Guard
Seems to care about Alex
Tries hard

Negatives
Is seriously creepy
Probably doesn't understand boundaries well

I don't know how well all that turned out, but hopefully it gives you kind of an indication of each character in the episode. 

What is the Pilot about?

The first scene takes place in Helen's bed, and she is currently sharing it with Alex.  He has an issue about whether the lights should be on or off, while talking after sex.  You see, he's a little out of practice.  He evidently has been recently divorced, and is still not able to cope with his new situation.  In many ways, he reminds me of Felix Ungar from The Odd Couple.  The difference between him and Felix is that Alex is completely uncool, but every woman who ever came in contact with Felix thought he was awesome.  I get the impression that no one thinks Alex is awesome in regards to anything, but he has a job.

Since it's a sitcom, I'm not going to tell you all the jokes, but I will outline what basically happens in the episode.  The jokes will just fill in the plot.  Some of the jokes are very funny, many of them are not.  As stated above, we start out with Alex and Helen in a very awkward after sex scene.  It is at this point that we realize that Alex is probably not very good with people.  His first instinct appears to be to say something about something that should be left unsaid.  This is definitely on display when Helen opens a drawer that is full of condoms.  Alex also seems to have no clue when to shut up, when words just should not be said.  The scene does not end well, but I won't spoil how it doesn't end well.

The next scene is the next morning in the office.  This is where we meet Emma, the "sassy" Executive Assistant to both Alex and Helen.  Her interaction with Alex was hilarious (to me), in the way she tries to draw boundary lines for him.  This character will probably annoy people, but for now, I find this to be my favorite or second favorite character in the series.  After Alex and Helen get past Emma, we meet Dan, Gregg, and Stephen in the conference room, as they are about to prepare for P.R. spin regarding salmonella from bad organic eggs.  Prior to the meeting, Alex is told that he looks tired, and he tells Dan that he had a late night.  Dan, being the d-bag he is, immediately speculates that Alex was having sex all night.  Alex says that he did not.  Gregg, meanwhile, wants all of the details of what happened.  While all of this is going on, Helen walks in to the meeting, and also would like to know what happened.  Finally, Stephen walks in to the meeting, and tells them that this is capitalism, and that time is money, and for Alex just to skip to the good stuff.  Alex doesn't know what that is, so Stephen explains to him that he wants to know "boob size and positions only" or something to that effect.  Alex proceeds to make a bunch of stuff up, and it's kind of a funny scene.

They then quickly devise some kind of strategy to solve the P.R. problem of the salmonella "situation".  In the scene immediately after, Stephen is "hiding" in Alex's office, and proceeds to have quite a creepy scene with Alex.  Behind closed doors, he is seen basically having a massage from the boss.  Alex is creeped out, and Dan and Gregg think it is amusing.  This is probably one of the highlights of the episode.

The next scene is involving Dan, Gregg, and eventually Alex.  Dan has a date, but the date's friend's cat has just died and he needs a wingman.  Gregg mercilessly tries to get to go, even though he's married.  He is rebuffed when Alex shows up.  Alex is not interested in this, but Helen's traumatic experience with him causes her to convince him to go on the date.  Gregg continuously offers to be the wingman in this scene.

At some point, we meet Walter, who is apparently the night Security Guard at the building they work in.  This is when we find out that Alex has been sleeping in his office, and Walter has been coming to hang out.  Walter hangs out and has conversations with Alex, during which he shows him DVDs of him chopping meat with various swords.  It's really quite bizarre.  I believe he helps Alex prepare for his "date".

I think the next scene is in a grocery store.  There was a previous scene where Helen had gone to the grocery store to get a Cuisine For One meal, and some bottles of wine.  In this next scene, in which the premise was hilarious to me, she has the same meal, but is buying six bottles of wine.  As anyone who has ever gone to Smart & Final with me can attest, the next line resonated with me.  The checker says to Helen, "Oh, having a party?"  I buy a lot of fun food, and this question has been asked to me on far more occasions than I can count.  I also tend to buy food in bulk, which also makes this happen.  Helen has a full scale meltdown in the store.  Even though the writing was kind of bad, in the scene, I loved the premise.  I play this question off a lot better than she does, in real life, and I often joke with my wife about what I wish I could say.

Helen then goes home and gets drunk, while around her 21 portraits of her dead fiance, and a coffee cup also with a portrait.  She decides it's time to get past what's happened, and drunk dials Alex.  Alex is just greeted by the dead cat friend date, when his phone rings.  He decides to go to Helen's place to talk to her, and needless to say, you can figure out what happens.

Unfortunately for Dan, he had to get Gregg to be his wingman, after Alex decided to leave.  This ruined Dan's chances of being "laid", and he is very disappointed in Alex.  And we are then on to the next day.

Even though I probably ruined most of the plot of the show for you, if you are a savvy sitcom watcher, you know that plot doesn't matter.  What makes a sitcom is how the plot is related to us.  It's not a crime show, so you're not really spoiling anything.  Writing that showed that there were a ton of things going on in the episode.  I hope I didn't spoil too much for you.

My reaction:

Free Agents is a series filled with potential.  It has astounding comic actors in it.  It's a relatively fully formed Pilot.  The character of Dan is wildly miscast, and I already can't stand the character/actor.  The person who should have played this part is Greg Pitts.  You may remember him as the guy in Office Space who talked about the "Oh face".  I think the character of Gregg is cast well, but I think they are giving this character way too much business.  He just always seems to be in the way, and in a professional environment, his awkwardness rings hollow.  I think the Emma character/actor is fantastic, and some of the best sarcastic type humor will come from her.  I'm fairly sure the best character on the show is Stephen, and he has the perfect balance of slime and smarm.  He creeps me out, but he's very funny, at the same time.  Hank Azaria is kind of playing the part similarly to how he played the part he had in the movie Heat.  Michael Mann said that Al Pacino ad-libbed a bunch of lines in Azaria's scene, and that his reactions were genuine.  I feel like Azaria often doesn't know what's coming in this series, and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.  Only time will tell on that.  I'm not really sure what I feel about the Helen character, but I wouldn't have cast her in the part.  I'm not saying she can't be great in it, but I'm not feeling it, yet.  Walter is a strange character, who's handled just about right.

There is some very good writing in the show, but it's presented in a weird way.  I think that people are turned off by the nature of the characters.  Every single character in the series is very flawed, and in many ways, could be considered unlikable.  I'm investing in a few more episodes of the series, to see if they can find a way to cut the edge off of some of the characters.  The edge that Emma and Stephen have is perfect, and I think Walter is probably about right, as is, but everyone else needs to have pretty substantial character tone downs.

I like the production value, especially for a sitcom, so I have some hopes for it.  The cast has some truly excellent comedic actors, so you need to give it a little bit of a leash.  I'm not saying this series is going to be a great show, but I wouldn't be surprised if it does turn out that way.  The biggest issue it has, outside of the character likability issues, is getting around the longevity problem.  This series would be so much better if it weren't office based, and that problem may be too big to overcome.  I don't think it will matter much, because this series is likely to get crushed in the ratings in its regular time slot.  My recommendation is to give it at least two more chances, even if those turn out to be fruitless.  I think I have a good eye for sitcom potential, and I think this series deserves more than one look, even if they don't do better than the Pilot.  I'll be keeping a close eye on the ratings next week, and we'll be able to see how long I think it will last, very quickly.  Thanks for reading.

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