Sunday, October 9, 2011

Free Agents a bit freer in original verison

     Last night brought the premiere of the original, British version of Free Agents on BBC America. Airing in 2009 "across the pond," Free Agents ran for six episodes. The first two were broadcast back to back last night. Alex (Stephen Mangan, Episodes, Billy Elliot) is a depressed man going through a divorce who falls into bed with his co-worker, Helen (Sharon Horgan, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret). Soon after sex, Alex becomes a weepy mess, and Helen, still upset over the death of her own guy, sends him away. But Alex is convinced that Helen is right for him, no matter how many dates Helen tries to set up for Alex, and thus begins their dance.

     Mangan and Horgan have excellent chemistry, and work really well together. Their not-quite-a-relationship is believable and sweet. Even though Alex is a mess emotionally, so is Helen, which is why she has sympathy for him, even as he keeps crying. After all, how many women would put up with that? Their understanding of each other's feelings and their friendship in the workplace are the makings of something real, should Helen finally decide to go for it. Which she probably will, despite reservations, because she truly does care for Alex.

     Rounding out the cast is Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Merlin) as their pervy boss, Stephen. Stephen is obsessed with porn and all things sexual, and is a multiple divorcee. By episode two of this series, Stephen falls for a woman, thinking seriously of marrying her. Yet, that doesn't really change him. His outsize, bluntly honest personality make for a very funny character, and add levity to what could potentially be, without him, a depressing, sappy sitcom.

     With all of this, Free Agents is definitely worth a watch. While it will only air for a few weeks, and no second series has been ordered two and a half years after the original run, it's still a nice story, well made and well acted. It's too bad there aren't more installments, if the first two entries are any indication of what's to come.

     The American premiere of the British version comes at an interesting time, as the American remake, airing on NBC, recently premiered its first season, but is not doing well, and may soon be canceled. But watching both series together allows an easy comparison. It is very clear that, as delightful as the American stars are, they do not have the chemistry of the original Alex and Helen. Head reprises his role, but is less integrated with the central duo, and thus, less effective. And many additional characters are added, seemingly just to force laughs. This drags the series down.

     Sure, the Americans probably realized they couldn't run a show for years off of 6 episodes worth of material, and needed to expand the cast and stories, a la The Office. Except that third tier comedians make up those side characters, who are weird and goofy in a bad way. Thus, the original comes across as far superior, despite having much of the same dialogue in the first episode, and an almost identical story.

     Plus, since the series is kind of filthy, and very sex-based, the American remake is at a disadvantageous because it can't use the obscene language or dirty teasing of the original.

     Watch the original Free Agents, Saturdays at 11 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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