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Friday, 23 of April of 2021

Audition Review: Up All Night – “Pilot” & Free Agents – “Pilot”

I’m all for NBC trying to carve out another night of comedy. I like having comedy on TV, even if I’m probably pickier with comedy than I am with hour-long dramas.  And this isn’t just motivated by the fact that I generally don’t seem to care for a lot of reality and competition programs. Comedy can help us see things from a different perspective, and it can make us laugh at things that otherwise aren’t terribly funny. Comedy can make us feel better, help us cope, and give us appreciation for things in ways that drama simply can’t.

So, while even though I didn’t like the pilot (or, really, the premise) for New Girl,  I’m glad it’s on. I’m likewise glad that Up All Night and Free Agents are on, even if neither of them have particularly strong pilots. Indeed, Up All Night‘s pilot the stronger of the two, but Free Agents is the show I’m more interested in seeing more of if it can deliver on its ideas more fully (the pilot is not as successful at it as I would have liked).Up All Night is a bit more put together, a bit more sure of itself than I was expecting, even though it does stumble (hard, I think) whenever it visits Regan’s work life. I enjoyed the interactions with Chris and Regan with Amy, though I do hope that they find ways to expand beyond “Raising a baby is really exhausting.” I know that it is (intellectually anyway), but I hope to see unique and clever ways that this happens. If not, I’ll stop watching and just continue to enjoy the tweets of a friend of mine.

I particularly dig the role reversal with Chris staying at home and Regan going off to work. Sure, Parenthood did this too, but I didn’t stick around long enough with Parenthood to see if the guy mired in that black hole of a plotline ever once expressed frustration at being a stay-at-home parent. But that Chris snaps at Regan about the job that is raising a child, giving voice to that, and from a male perspective, is somehow refreshing. And his search for cheese is perhaps the funniest thing in the episode.

But Regan’s work plot is a momentum-stopper. I know others like her, but I’ve never found Maya Rudolph to be particularly engaging as a performer, and as Ava, an Oprah-Whitney combo, I’m frustrated that the show simply hands over scenes to her to dominate, sucking all the energy from them. I understand that we end up with parallels (Ava’s Regan’s baby to deal with during the day while Chris has Amy), but there’s just something sad about it, and not funny.

In the end, I enjoyed the show when it was centered on the family together, dealing with being new parents. It’s funny but not laugh-out-loud funny, and I don’t believe it’s inaccessible to those without children of their own since, at least here, it trades in cultural norms of knowing what child-rearing consists of. We’ll see if they can keep that going for more episodes.

Free Agents, on the other hand, is a disappointing pilot. I love love love the idea of a comedy that is about grieving. Grief can be funny, but demonstrating that has to be well-executed to work. Go too far, and it’s too dark and it becomes something else, but veer too lightly on it, and it belittles the pain that the characters are supposedly experiencing.

But Free Agents somehow manages to commit to neither of those and the result is just a tease of what could be a very good show. I’m already happy with Azaria’s Alex and Hahn’s Helen, but the rest of the supporting cast is a collection of stock characters (frat bro/dude; dweebish married man; bitchy/uber-fashionable secretary; weird security guard; kind of mean and sex-obsessed boss) that don’t feel particular interesting (Madrigal’s Gregg (dweebish married man) is particularly grating) here, but there’s room to flesh them out.

The show has promise, though. Watching Alex and Helen attempt to cope with their respective losses could be fascinating, and the show hints at the degrees to which both are struggling to cope. Alex’s stuff is less specific, and rooted more in crying which is only funny because “men don’t cry” mentality (and by this, I mean it isn’t particularly funny), but I enjoyed Helen’s rant at the grocery story and I like that the show doesn’t show her making out with the picture of her fiancee. We know it’s going to happen, and I’m fine to see the result, but seeing her actually do it would’ve pushed it too far in the light comedy category.

I don’t know that Free Agents, however, is sure it knows which category it wants. I imagine that there’ll be some push and pull between the writers and producers with NBC over the show’s tone, which may leave Free Agents floundering for its run. And that will be sad because, of the the two shows, Free Agents is the one that is bolder, more exciting, and that one that I would most like to see do well.

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