Pilot rapid-fire review: Up All Night and Free Agents

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

I didn’t expect to like either of NBC’s two new Wednesday comedies Up All Night or Free Agents. There are good people working on these series, both in front of and behind the camera. However, nothing in the countless TV spots, online clips and pre-film promo packages convinced me that quality television was on the way. Of course, I’m very wary of the issues with judging a comedy series’ potential based on a pilot, but that doesn’t mean we can just forgive things when they are terrible. I expected both of these series to verge on terrible.

So I’m pleasantly surprised, certainly in regard one over the other, but still. The Up All Night pilot has its issues – most notably the tonal dissonance that follows Maya Rudolph’s character wherever she goes on-screen – but Christina Applegate and Will Arnett have fun, believable chemistry and the series seems interested in taking their problems seriously. Building a series around unfit new parents isn’t the most original of conceits, yet Emily Spivey’s script does a great job of making it funny, warm and relatively heartfelt without dipping into the Modern Family schmaltz town or using the baby as an inappropriate prop.  Regan and Chris feel like real people living in a real world with believable, relatable problems. Arnett isn’t mugging at all and Applegate is a natural television talent. They’re a really good duo.

But as many have said, the workplace side of things has a lot of issues. I’ve never been a big Maya Rudolph fan and Bridesmaids started to change my perception of her. Unfortunately, NBC decided to re-shape and expand her role because of that film’s success and as a result, Rudolph is playing the kind of broad, overly-animated character that tends to know me. Clearly someone thought that the series needed more zany laughs to punch things up, but Up All Night succeeds because it is fairly earnest and straightforward with its portrayal of the new parent lifestyle. Regan and Ava’s workplace hijinks didn’t dominate this episode too much, but I am somewhat scared by what could happen in the future. The tonal and rhythm differences between the two environments are too misaligned and clashing and my fear is that the domestic stories will be elevated to the workplace’s manic levels to balance things out when in reality, the equilibrium change needs to go the other way.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly this new family charmed me. I kind of care about them already, which is weird. I blame the super-cute baby. Damn babies.

Free Agents has almost the exact same issues as Up All Night, only the “good” part of the series isn’t as good and the “bad” part is so much worse. Alex and Helen’s personal problems are handled with a moderate modicum of respect and nuance and both Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn seem comfortably uncomfortable in their roles. I don’t care about the two of them as much as I do the people from Up All Night (which isn’t that much to begin with), but at least I don’t want to punch them in the face for being overly cynical, smug or annoying. Hey, with comedy pilots, a little goes a long way.

However, the rest of Free Agents is pretty awful. All of the supporting characters are miserable, misogynistic dolts who think the primary way to pick up women is to sexually harass the hell out of them. Anthony Head is hamming up way too much and Mo Mandel is just horrible. Thankfully, Free Agents is an equal-opportunity assembly line douche-maker. The female secretary Emma (played by Natasha Leggero) is a miserable person to watch and listen to. Everyone but Alex and Helen feel like the worst characters from Entourage, only with the tool-level turned up even further. Writer John Enbom made fun of people like this on Party Down and so I’m hoping some of the deconstructive wit comes in the future. If not, this series is in trouble. They don’t have a cute-as-hell baby to fall back on.

Both of these series have split personalities. They want to explore many of the issues facing people in the modern world, but those explorations are somewhat trapped behind traditional, cliché sitcom-y performances and conceits that they could do without. The potential is there – again, more so in Up All Night’s case – but there is also a long way to go to get there.

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