It's true that the broadcast networks' half-hour offerings for fall are not strong, but I'm not trying to damn these two shows with faint praise. Given time to work out a few kinks and settle into a rhythm, they may provide some quality guffaws going forward.
To their credit, neither show overindulges in sentimentality. It's hard to walk that fine line between sincerity and sarcasm in a comedy, and though each show is a bit broad here and there, neither of these shows overindulges in the kind of false, cynical patter or the unearned, warm-and-fuzzy mawkishness that sinks so many network sitcoms.
For a while there, the shows had partly similar settings, but that's all been changed. In 'Up All Night,' the chronicle of new parents adjusting to life with a baby, Christina Applegate's character, Reagan, used to be a publicist, and the people in 'Free Agents' work at a corporate PR agency.
But, thanks to pre-debut revisions, Reagan is now a producer at a daytime talk show hosted by her imperious, insecure friend Ava (Maya Rudolph). Though Rudolph is an undoubtedly gifted comedic actress, it's not quite clear how her larger-than-life character will fit into the rather small-scale ambitions of 'Up All Night.' Rudolph's impressions of divas like Oprah and Donatella Versace on 'Saturday Night Live,' were, of course, terrific, but they were great because she went big with them. In a three-minute sketch, there's no reason to pursue subtlety.
But Ava is supposed to be both a powerful chat-show magnate and Reagan's regular-gal best friend, and it's not clear that 'Up All Night' knows how to modulate between those two extremes. For Ava to be funny, she has to be selfish and clueless; for her to be Reagan's friend, she can't be all that clueless or excessively mean to her underlings. If 'Up All Night' can't get that character right, it's not clear that the comedy's other charms will be able to compensate for its wobbly diva situation.
Applegate and Will Arnett, who plays her husband, Chris, are very good, which is no surprise. It's nice to see Arnett ('Arrested Development,' 'Running Wilde') playing something other than an emotionally stunted man-child, and if the pilot for 'Up All Night' didn't make me guffaw all that much, it passed by pleasantly and it was good to see that creator Emily Spivey was able to wring comedy from the new-parent situation without using the same dozen baby jokes we've all seen 200 times before. Having said that, anyone with kids will certainly recognize the familiar competition between parents regarding who has slept less and/or has the tougher set of tasks (Chris is the stay-at-home parent in this scenario).
As for 'Free Agents,' the best thing about it is the delightfully droll Anthony Stewart Head ('Buffy') as Stephen, the self-absorbed, mildly menacing head of a PR firm. He steals every scene that he's in, and I may well continue to watch the show just for the inappropriate workplace conversations Stephen likes to instigate.
Head has the showiest and funniest role, but Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn have the much tougher task of playing damaged co-workers who unexpectedly fall into bed. That was a bad move, to say the least: Hahn's character, Helen, is grieving from a personal loss and Azaria's Alex is recently divorced, and both are emotional messes in their own ways.
Azaria and Hahn are fine in the roles, but this is a show that will, in some ways, hinge on their chemistry, and they don't have a ton at the moment. Still, I found 'Free Agents' more than tolerable, and there's potential in the office ensemble that surrounds these two characters (though I wouldn't mind if the super-sass of Natasha Leggero's assistant character was toned down a bit).
I must confess that I'm extra-wiling to give this show a chance, given that 'Free Agents,' which is an adaptation of a U.K. comedy, has John Enbom of 'Party Down' as its executive producer and head writer. The late, lamented 'Party Down' was one of the all-time great workplace comedies, so I'm willing to see what Enbom can do with a bigger platform than the Starz network and a budget that pays for more than a few trays of cheese cubes.
It's too early to give a definitive judgment on either 'Up All Night' or 'Free Agents' (I'm in agreement with critic Alan Sepinwall, who notes here that it's especially tough to judge this fall crop of shows by their pilots, which, even more than usual, may not be indicative of where a show intends to go). Still, I'd willingly watch further episodes of each comedy, and that's not something I can say about many of the other new programs for fall.
Scheduling note:'Up All Night' premieres 10PM ET Wednesday, but its regular time slot is 8PM ET Wednesdays as of Sept. 21. 'Free Agents' premieres 10:30PM ET Wednesday, but its regular time slot is 8:30PM ET Wednesdays as of Sept. 21.
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