Review: Free Agents 1×1

What happens when you try to lighten a dark comedy? It sucks

Free Agents

In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, NBC

Funny, isn’t it, how networks mould new shows to make them more like their other shows? Consider Free Agents, a Channel 4 comedy (that you can still watch on 4oD) starring Stephen Mangan and Sharon Horgan as two emotionally-damaged PR professionals who work together but hook up. Quite a dark comedy, it focused on the two’s growing, mostly sex-based relationship, with only the occasional interjection by their sex-mad boss, Anthony Stewart Head.

Now NBC has adapted it. Gone are Mangan and Horgan, in are Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) and Kathryn Hahn (best known as a theater actress in the US). Fair enough. Anthony Stewart Head’s come along for the ride, which is nice. But somehow,a show that would have been perfect for a dark network like FX has become a lot lighter and a lot more like any other NBC ensemble comedy along the way.

And it’s not actually that funny now. Here’s a trailer.

Based on the witty, cult U.K. series of the same name, “Free Agents” is a crooked, romantic comedy from creator John Enbom (“Party Down”) and Emmy Award-winning director Todd Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle”) that explores the trials and tribulations of finding love and companionship – the second time around.

Hank Azaria (“The Simpsons,” “Huff”) stars as newly divorced Alex, who is missing his kids and trying to keep himself together. Alex’s co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn, “Hung”) thinks she has it together, but she drinks too much in order to cope with her fiance’s untimely death. It’s no surprise then when these two overworked public relations executives share an ill-fated night of passion and are forced to cope with the awkward aftermath.

Thus begins the journey of two lost and emotionally damaged souls in search of happiness. Joining the cause is an array of co-workers who are both helpful and meddling at the same time. Stephen (Anthony Head, “Merlin,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) is the office boss who is concerned about Alex’s emotional stability, yet needs him to focus on his work; Dan (Mo Mandel, “Love Bites,” “Modern Family”) is a bachelor in search of a wingman; and Gregg (Al Madrigal, “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “The Daily Show”) is the nerdy, lone husband of the group. Despite their valiant and well-intentioned efforts, they are failing in their attempts to help Alex get back into the dating scene. In addition, Emma (Natasha Leggero, “Ugly Americans”) is Alex’s spitfire assistant, who is always ready with a quick comeback, and Joe Lo Truglio (“Backwash,” “Mad Love”) is the building security guard who is always ready to share a little advice. Together, this motley, and often dysfunctional, group takes on a new level of damage control.

“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. Ira Ungerleider and Karey Burke (“Miss Guided”) executive produce, along with Big Talk Productions’ Kenton Allen (“Free Agents,” BBC Network) and Nira Park, as well as Chris Niel.

Is it any good?
Well, it’s not funny. In fact, I spent a lot of time clock-watching out of boredom during the episode. It’s like two entirely different shows have been grafted together.

Show 1 is the UK show. This has depth and darkness, with both Azaria and Hahn’s characters given surprising pains to deal with – loneliness, death, divorce, estrangement from children, having to date again and so on. You can see why they’d get together, you feel their pain and their exchange of zinging one-liners is well handled. Add to that Anthony Stewart Head at his usual entertaining best so that you’ve got some fun in the midst of all this darkness and you have a black comedy worth watching.

Show 2 is the US embellishments stapled on top. This is the land of funny, implausible work colleagues, all trying to outdo each other in their sitcom-standardness. We have security guards who invite friends over to watch DVDs of “swords and meat”. We have the uppity executive assistant, the married, nerdy work colleague who wants to be cool and hang out with the boys and a single work colleague always on the look-out for a wingman. Nothing about them is funny.

It’s a shame since the Azaria/Hahn “romantic” comedy could have been a good show. Unfortunately, NBC has one again tried to make an inoffensive, bland crowd-pleaser out of a potentially good idea. Will probably be cancelled within a few weeks, or at least by the end of the season, so one to avoid, I think, particularly if you’ve seen the original.

And seriously, whose idea was that poster?


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.