It’s an unavoidable truth: All people will face some terrible, horrible, no-good-very-bad event at some point in their lives. What really matters then, is how one reacts to that circumstance — either be a Charlie Brown-esque ball of despondency for eternity or smack those negative emotions into oblivion and find a way to move on with your life. In the case of the new NBC sitcom “Free Agents,” the two sad-sack main characters are churning around in their respective emotional blenders until they finally decide to pour themselves out into each other’s arms.
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Our male lead is Alex (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”) a chronic crier who’s lost custody of his kids following a recent divorce. His path to solace begins after a one-night stand with co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn, “Crossing Jordan”), who’s been trying to bury her grief over the death of her fiancé in bottles of wine and microwavable dinners. The tale of Alex and Helen is awkward at first (sleeping with a colleague tends to do that) and Helen is initially resistant, but their natural chemistry soon becomes obvious — both to each other and to the audience. Their sharp, nonstop banter, unleashed by the remarkably gifted Azaria and Hahn, is what makes the show a surprise success.
The relationship between Alex and Helen is the crux of “Free Agents,” but the show is as much a workplace sitcom as it is a romantic comedy, bringing along an appropriate ensemble to bolster the laughs. There’s Dan (Mo Mandel, “Love Bites”), the sleazy “B-school bro” type everyone will love to hate, always on the prowl for his next hookup. Office executive assistant Emma (Natasha Leggero, “Last Comic Standing”) is a pint-size maneater with enough sass to make Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” blush.
The show’s clear supporting standout is Fred Armisen-lookalike Al Madrigal (“The Daily Show”) as this office’s version of Kenneth “The Page” Parcell, piercing scenes with his foibles and tomfoolery. Madrigal more than enough fills the weirdness quotient, so the show goes overboard with the inclusion of creepy actor Joe Lo Truglio (“Superbad”), embarrassingly unfunny and utterly unnecessary as a creepy security guard. Another disappointing failure is Alex and Helen’s boss, played by Anthony Stewart Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who is reprising his role from the original British series. Head’s character is instantly forgettable, following the trope of an aloof, filthy rich, filthy-joking executive who really has no business running a corporation.
“Free Agents” spreads the content of its humor nicely, ranging from the lowbrow (God save the sex joke) to the mildly highbrow (Willy Loman zingers) to the absolutely random (“Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed” references), all managing to be funny. Note the usage of the relatively tame adjective “funny” — the pilot of “Free Agents” is never uproarious, just a steady stream of chuckles and guffaws that lacks any true gut-busting moments.
Still, with the bubbly chemistry of its charming leads and a (mostly) solid supporting cast, the foundation has been laid for something potentially great. Let’s hope NBC will sign “Free Agents” to a long-term contract.