Beginning tonight, the original United Kingdom version of Free Agents will air on BBC America at 11 p.m. Eastern for the next six weeks.
In a fall TV season packed to the rafters with remarkably bad comedies (Whitney Cummings, meet Johnny Drama. Mr. Drama, Ms. Cummings) NBC's Free Agents, a tone-deaf remake of a British show of the same name, managed to stand out. I can't remember ever seeing another comedy that so perfectly captured the feel of being trapped along in small room with someone suffering from clinical depression. The star, Hank Azaria, trapped in the role of a man with the problems of someone ten years younger (which is roughly the size of the age gap between Azaria and the thirty-six-year-old lead character in the original), looked as if he was always on the verge of drowning in his own flop swear. Struggling to find a way to make this sad sack appealing, Azaria only succeeded in giving a performance that combined the least savory characteristics of Moe Szyslak and Gil Gunderson. About the only lucky break that the U.S. Free Agents caught came earlier this week, when it was canceled, just days before BBC America begins airing the original series. If people had been able to compare the two shows side-by-side just by switching on their sets, Azaria might have ended up on a suicide watch.
Both the British and the Americanized Free Agents open basically the same way, with two people who work together—in the original, they're talent agents; in the remake, they work in an advertising agency in Portand—lying in bed, getting to know each other better after having had sex for the first time. The two scenes are superficially similar enough to provide a first-class illustration of the difference between the feeling you get from enjoying the work of people who are in full control and know what they're doing versus the feeling you get from seeing the work of people who are awkwardly working from a template that might as well be in a foreign language. The hero of the British Free Agents, Alex, is played by Stephen Mangan, who, by an odd coincidence, recently starred in the Showtime series Episodes, as a TV writer hired to turn his smart British comedy into something rancid enough for the American market. Mangan looks a little like Elliot Gould in his early-70s leading-man prime, and he has that same, special ability to make fumbling emotional confusion and panicky oversharing seem attractive.
In its day, Gould's "kiss me, I'm neurotic" act, like Woody Allen's and Dustin Hoffman's, was taken for a political statement, intended to subvert the conventional idea of the romantic hero as WASP muscle-head. Alex's behavior, which includes weeping after sex, is a reflection of the miserable state that his life is in. Recently thrown out of his home by the wife who's divorcing him, and missing his two children, he describes himself to Helen (Sharon Horgan), the co-worker he's trying to win over, as "broke, homeless, and about as sexually sophisticated as a fifteen-year-old born-again Christian." (He immediately follows that up with, "Any chance of a shag?" It works.) His charm is that he's a funny, intelligent nice guy. His curse is that, in his current situation, he's so down on himself that his niceness renders him practically defenseless. Walking and talking on a London street with Helen, he fails to convince her to go out with him and sinks, despondently, into a chair on the curb. The shopkeeper approaches him, and Alex tells him, "Sorry, just browsing." Cut to the agency where Alex is returning to work, carrying the chair.
Free Agents is set in a post-Cheers/Moonlighting world where getting the object of your lust into bed is the easy part. Having gotten well past first base with Helen, Alex decides that the two of them are perfect for each other and lays (tentative, stammering) siege to her heart. What makes the show so smart and fetching as a romantic comedy is that, while it's perfectly obvious that Alex and Helen really are perfect for each other, it's also easy to see why she'd be reluctant to take him on in the broken state he's in. So there's nothing contrived about the prolonged wait to see if they'll wind up in each other's arm. He keeps declaring his feelings while reminding her that he's a train wreck; she keeps explaining why they can't get together, using arguments that make perfect sense even as they expose her true feelings. In the show's second episode (set on Valentine's Day), she assigns herself the task of helping him find Ms. Right by posting his profile ("Divorced but Hot") at a matchmaking site. When he informs her that he knows what's really on her mind, because he's aware that she's been deleting any responses he gets from women who look really promising, she fires back that she's just trying to spare him the pain that's sure to come from him playing outside his league.
Much of the show's humor comes from the good-hearted man-child Alex's need to hang onto the last, low-hanging vestiges of his self-respect while functioning in a profession that's mostly composed of jackals and pimps. Talking to a starlet who's shopping around for representation, one of Alex's colleagues breaks it down for her: "Everybody want to fuck you. And it's like, do you want to be with an agency that's gonna let you get fucked, or do you want to be with an agency that's going to take the fuck for you? 'Cause that's what CMA do, right? We bend and we spread and we take the fuck for you. These other agencies you're seeing, these gentlemen, they're pussies, right? I'm not a pussy. I'm a cunt." Alex's listens to this and feels compelled to add, "I'm not a cunt, but I know how to be one." (In a later episode, he says to Helen that he likes to think he's "one of the good cunts." She warns him not to think so highly of himself.)
You may have intuited from that speech that Free Agents is not an all-ages show where language is concerned. If Rip Torn's character from The Larry Sanders Show were to wander in, he'd feel right at home, and might start taking notes. (Sadly, many of the specifics will be covered with bleeps on BBC America, but at least attentive viewers should be able to get the general idea.) While Mangan and Horgan are the heart and brains of the show, its dirty, dirty mind is embodied by Anthony Head, as the boss of the agency. Head also played the boss on the U.S. version, where his role was watered down and reconceived as a family-hour version of a self-styled dirty old man—a handsome older dude who makes "inappropriate" comments but is a sweetheart at his core. Here, Head has a moth-eaten copy of Hustler at his core; his idea of tastefully enquiring into his employees' private lives is to ask, "Did you dip it in the brown?" Even when he drops hints that his sexual predator's lifestyle has its lonely and unfulfilling side, the show never turns sentimental about him. It trusts that he'll bounce back, because he's that most rare and wondrous of things, a lovable, fully realized cretin. Reflecting on his own road not taken, Alex says, "I want clusterfucks, I want daisy chains, I want hot golden showers." Helen, appalled, tells him, "No, you don't!" "No," he admits sadly, "I don't." Free Agents is a comedy for people who might not really want such things themselves but who might feel, in some guilty corner of their open-minded souls, that maybe, just maybe, they should.
- "I'm honored to be your first meaningless fuck of the new millennium."
- Alex on his kids' musical tastes: "The little one only likes High School Musical. And the Stranglers."
- Anthony Head in love: " Lizzie's different. She wants to take things slowly. She's gently affectionate. Asks me about my children. Usually, I'd dump someone for that kind of behavior, but with her I actually find it endearing. I'm in uncharted water here, Helen. So tell me—what do women want, if they don't want anal?" Helen: "Ah! That old chestnut."
- "Don't do that. Don't say you don't want to come out with me and then laugh at my jokes. I hate when that happens."