Coupling up is a trope sitcoms just can’t avoid. From Sam and Diane to Ben and Leslie, coupling up has been happening for decades, and will continue to do so. In fact, this Fall, multiple new shows don’t just couple up, but have entire premises surrounding that singular idea. The creative merit of romantic pairings on sitcoms is tough to pin down. In terms of storytelling, having a romantic aspect between two, or more, characters is logical—almost required—for nearly any successful television series. It can also be a downright disaster.
NBC’s A to Z premiered last night at 9:30 PM, follows Andrew and Zelda, two attractive 20-30 somethings, through their entire relationship. All eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour of it. Andrew (Ben Feldman, Mad Men) is, as the series’ fairy godmother-like narrator (voiced by Katey Sagal) tells us, a man’s man that likes sports and Liam Neeson movies. What he really is, though, is a hopeless romantic that longs for the perfect relationship with the woman of his dreams. Zelda (Cristin Milioti, How I Met Your Mother) is a girl’s girl that loves all the things girl’s girls are supposed to love, only she’s hopelessly unromantic. Certainly, there is no will they or won’t they tension; we know from the very beginning that these two will, and we know for exactly how long. But, what happens at eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour?
My guess is cancellation.
Let’s get one thing straight: pilots are hard. Comedy pilots are even harder, and the last thing I expected was for A to Z to blow my doors off. The episode traverses the meeting of Andrew and Zelda. There’s a meet-cute, some flirtation and social media stalking, at one point Zelda seems to be playing Jenga by herself which is inherently weird, a few solid martini puns and other throwaway laughs strewn about. In all, the 20-plus minutes of A to Z’s pilot feels like a streamlined version of any average rom-com from the last ten years. Some of this was to be expected. There is only so much one can do with a third of an hour, and setting up the base for an entire relationship is a big thing to accomplish in such a small timeframe. It doesn’t bother me that not a lot happened in the episode, what’s bothersome is that what did happen was utterly unentertaining.
But, my biggest problem with A to Z, is that everything, from Sagal’s voiceover, to Andrew’s geeky, awkward exuberance, feels played out. The episode centers on a moment Andrew had at a concert years earlier, in which he saw the girl of his dreams. After some back and forth, and quite a bit of lying, we find out that the girl was Zelda. Because, of course it was. Everything about A to Z is all glitter and no glue. It’s not even cute, though it could be, if some of the thickly-applied schmaltz was cleaned off. The easy way to explain why the show doesn’t work (yet) might be to say that relationships are boring to everyone but the people involved. But that’s not true. The truth is that relationships are boring when the people in them are boring. Despite two talented actors embodying them, that is exactly what Andrew and Zelda are, and exactly what episode one is.
What creator Ben Queen (who wrote the pilot) and his staff need to do is steer away from rom-com clichés. Most people don’t want to watch your average romantic comedy a half-hour at a time every week. He should take cues from FX’s wonderful You’re the Worst, a show that runs laps around A to Z in creativity and laughs. On You’re the Worst, Stephen Falk has created a world in which every character lives up to the show’s title, and it is invariably better for it. Terrible people are interesting, weird people are interesting, the cookie cutter molds that Andrew and Zelda have been baked from aren’t compelling in the least and, surprisingly, lack even a modicum of sweetness. The supporting cast isn’t much better. At the moment, giving more screen time to anyone other than Feldman or Milioti doesn’t seem promising. The two supporting characters worth mentioning, Andrew’s best friend and roommate, Stu (Henry Zebrowski), and Zelda’s law school pal, Stephie (Lenora Crichlow), are one-dimensional bores. The former being a neutered version of Zach Galifinakis, with the latter’s identity built on the fact that she doesn’t have one.
I can’t stress enough that comedies need time to grow. Parks and Recreation wasn’t its true self until somewhere in Season Two, and A to Z can’t be expected to find a rhythm any quicker. It wouldn’t be fair. What the show does have are two solid performers in Feldman and Milioti and, as their chemistry grows, it could be enough to sustain the show until the rest of the world catches up. But, right now, the world isn’t one worth spending any time in. Queen has shown us A, and we know Z is somewhere in the distance. What he needs to do is make us care about the letters in between.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.