A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the pop culture insistence that while women may get badly messed up before a divorce, men get wrecked in the aftermath. Free Agents fits squarely in that model, though it’s a bit more balanced, about a man, Alex (Hank Azaria), and woman, Helen (a wonderful Kathryn Hahn), who find precisely what they need from each other in the aftermath of staggering emotional blows: in his case, the divorce, in hers, the death of her fiance.
The show works almost entirely on the strength of Alex and Helen’s characters as they both struggle to maintain their equilibrium in a semi-brutal office culture. Alex’s coworkers haze him to get back on his game after the divorce that’s flattened him; an obnoxious coworker pressures Alex to act as his wingman; his boss, an unfortunately grating Anthony Head tells him to focus less on his life and more on his work before showing him sex acts on his iPad. Helen gets anxious after a younger coworker warns her that she’s facing vaginal death. The supporting characters are, one episode in, dangerously grating, and the show risks souring easily if it doesn’t elevate them beyond stock tropes.
But Azaria and Hahn make me willing to forgive a lot. “You’re, like, making a statement there,” Alex remarks on the number of condoms in Helen’s bedside drawer the first time they sleep together. “I can buy bulk on the Internet?” she asks. “No, more like it’s 2011 and I’m an independent woman and I can buy hundreds of condoms,” Alex says thinking he’s come up with a compliment. “Doesn’t make me a slut.” Helen is taken aback. “Is that what I’m saying? Or am I saying it’s 2010 and I’m going to buy condoms to have sex with my fiance,” who is, of course, now dead. When a date tells Alex his new, Helen-approved shirt is nice, Azaria sells his anxiety beautifully when Alex asks “Really?” And I liked the specificity of Helen’s shopping list when she freaks out at a supermarket clerk she thinks is judging her. “I am buying wine, and frozen pork medallions, and sherbet, and wine. I’m not having a party,” she tells him in a huff. “I’m going to eat my pork medallions, and my sherbet, and drink my wine alone. And I’m fine with that.”
There are good things here, and I’m interested in how the show’s going to explore Alex and Helen’s grief and loss. I appreciate that Alex isn’t totally emasculated by the agony he’s clearly in — he’s funny and functional, even if he can’t keep it up all the time. And Helen’s self-aware about the ways she’s holding on to her fiance, even if she starts taking pictures of him off the wall to, for whatever reason, “Fernando.” (“I’m not sure what you think ‘Fernando’ is about,” Alex tells her. “It’s about two old Mexican men who are reminiscing about the Mexican American war.”) These are real people. Everyone else around them should be, too.