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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
FREE AGENTS (NBC)
(written by John Enbom; directed by Todd Holland; TRT: 21:33)
The network's description: ""Free Agents" is a crooked workplace/romantic new comedy from creator John Enbom ("Party Down") and Emmy Award-winning director Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle") based on the cult U.K. series of the same name that explores the trials and tribulations of two public relations executives on the rebound. Alex (Hank Azaria, "The Simpsons," "Huff") is newly divorced and can barely keep himself together while his co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn, "Hung") thinks she has it together but is obsessed with her deceased fiancé and actually is falling apart. Then a drunken Alex and Helen end up in bed together, and in the resulting sober confusion, Helen decides that they should only be friends. Meanwhile Alex's co-workers, Dan (Mo Mandel, "Love Bites," "Modern Family") and Gregg (Al Madrigal, "Wizards of Waverly Place," "Gary, Unmarried"), and Stephen (Anthony Head, "Merlin," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") fail in their attempts to help him get back out on the dating scene.
When Alex finally agrees to a date, Helen gets a little jealous, and he gets cold feet, so they end up back where they started -- in a casual, intimate and beautifully awkward relationship. Also starring is Joe Lo Truglio ("Backwash," "Mad Love") and Natasha Leggero ("Ugly Americans," "'Til Death"). "Free Agents" is a production of Universal Media Studios in association with Dark Toy and Big Talk Productions. Enbom is executive producer/creator along with executive producer/director Holland. Karey Burke ("Miss/Guided") executive-produces, along with Big Talk Productions' Kenton Allen ("Free Agents," BBC Network) and Nira Park, as well as Chris Niel."
What did they leave out? BBC America recently picked up the broadcast rights to the original U.K. version so you'll be able to see that as well in the near future.
The plot in a nutshell: Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen's (Kathryn Hahn) decision to give into their carnal desires probably wasn't the best decision they've ever made. Not so much because they work together as public relations executives, but because they're both emotional messes. Newly divorced Alex literally breaks into tears at the mere thought of having to share custody of his kids while Helen, whose husband died a year ago, medicates her pain with a steady diet of wine, frozen dinners and well, more wine. Sensing the impending trainwreck that would be their continued relationship, Helen instead opts to be friends and makes Alex her reclamation project, him being the bigger mess of the two.
And help is exactly what he needs after his co-worker Dan (Mo Mandel) insists on making him his wingman in the dating scene. Alex of course takes Helen's continued presence - offering tips on clothing and how to talk to women - as a sign he should continue to pursue her, but she ultimately makes it clear it's not going to happen. Or at least that's what she tries to make clear. You see, between the aforementioned wine habits and the de facto shrine to her late husband she keeps in her apartment, Helen's actually just as screwed up as Alex, a fact that even Alex finally gets wise to. Ultimately whether it's as friends or lovers, they're stuck together - and that may be exactly what they need.
What works: I have to say, I wasn't expecting to be charmed by this as much as I was. Azaria and Hahn are quite cute together, both comedically and romantically. Whether it's going shopping (Alex, trying to deflect Helen's latest shirt suggestion: "Because I have no plans to deejay at an Armenian gangster's acquittal party."), teasing each other over the phone (the merits of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr.'s work together, play together relationship are thoroughly dissected) or exchanging coy smiles at work, there's chemistry abound between them. Azaria and Hahn in general are wonderfully relaxed and self-assured here, a nice change of pace from the oddballs and manics they're usually tasked with playing.
Helping matters along is a fun array of supporting characters at their office, from Natasha Leggero as their shared executive assistant Emma ("It's not sass," she tells Alex about her attitude. "This is how it is."); to Anthony Head as their amusingly bawdy boss Stephen (reprising his role from the U.K. version); to Al Madrigal as sad sack Gregg, who's just excited by the prospect of being out of the house without his family; to Joe Lo Truglio as oddball security guard Walter, who's letting Alex crash at the office while his new place is finished. They help stir up conflict when needed, not to mention give a fun topspin to Alex and Helen's mechanizations. It's not so much a question of will they or won't they, it's a question of if they'll get it together as people - a welcome take on the romantic comedy.
What doesn't: The humor sometimes gets a little big for my taste - Alex cries at the very hint of his kids' favorite song while to say Helen's parade of pictures of her late husband is overblown is an understatement - but I get that that's kind of the point. All in all, again, I have to say...
The bottom line: ...I wasn't expecting to be charmed by this as much as I was.