The backward relationship — sex first; commitment later — certainly has broad underpinnings, from the hit romantic comedy “Knocked Up” to (less profitably) “Fools Rush In.” The formula goes almost instantly awry, however, in “Free Agents,” a single-camera laffer that begins with its protagonists in bed together and proceeds, unpleasantly and unsteadily, from there. Viewers will have to like leads Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn an awful lot to prevent this British adaptation — which NBC would doubtless love to blossom into another “The Office” — from more closely resembling “Coupling” or “The IT Crowd” and quickly being placed on waivers.
Thematically speaking, the underlying concept lends itself more to the British approach to series — where a season usually means only six episodes — than the kind of protracted mating dance the American knockoff, in success, would augur.
Azaria’s Alex is newly divorced, and prone to crying a lot about it, even after sex. Hahn’s Helen is an emotional mess too, owing to the death of her fiance. The two wake up in bed, with no idea how to behave once back at the corporate public-relations firm where they work.
Like most programs set in what are supposed to be high-powered PR outfits, this one appears to be overseen by somebody who has never actually set foot inside one. How else to explain this particular company, where staff meetings devolve into extended bantering about Alex’s sex life, all egged on by the bizarre and imperious boss (is there any other kind in sitcoms?) played by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Anthony Head, reprising his role from the U.K. version.
The underlying notion of a tentative romance between two damaged people could be promising if handled properly — though you’d probably need cable parameters, and perhaps Jeremy Irons, to fully do it justice. As constructed by writer John Enbom (“Party Down”) and director Todd Holland, “Free Agents” leaves its leads adrift with scarcely a genuine moment to be found, and other than Head, not a single supporting character worth mentioning.
In a way, NBC’s scheduling of the show offers an unintended metaphor for its content: Inaugurating a new hour of comedy paired with another newcomer, “Up All Night,” it’s being launched behind the “America’s Got Talent” finale, then set adrift after that one-night fling with no clear formula regarding what to do next.
Like the central couple’s off-camera tryst, in other words, those first numbers might be as close to a fleeting morning-after glow as “Free Agents” ever gets.