If you’re like me, when you watch a TV show, no matter drama or comedy, you can’t help but try to figure it out, guess what happens. There’s a thrill in both getting it right, and being surprised. The best shows continually surprise us, or create narratives that defy expectations so brilliantly, even the most determined TV detectives have to put away their magnifying glass and simply enjoy the ride.
Nothing about A to Z is surprising. At least, not yet. The second episode of the freshman comedy was equally predictable as the pilot, so much so that I was able to parse together how the half-hour would play out well before the first commercial break. “B is for Big Glory” saw Andrew and Zelda, one day into their relationship, conquer the often problematic question of exclusivity. This, being a sitcom world, of course meant that each would endeavor on a date without the other, only to find that they wanted to be exclusive all along. The plot was, if hollow, far more entertaining than the story put forth in episode one, with a smattering of genuine laughs.
Predictability is to be expected, this being a show with a definite premise. The only real question worth noting concerning A to Z, besides what happens on the (supposed) final day of Andrew and Zelda’s relationship, is what will happen at episode 27. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the show has created a (once again) unsurprising title formula for each episode. “A is for…,” “B is for…,” etc. So what happens when the alphabet soup runs dry? Does the show continue with its pattern, creating something new for A to stand for? At the moment, I care more about this puzzle than anything having to do with Andrew or Zelda. Because I don’t care about Andrew or Zelda. And that’s the problem.
Premise can only get you so far in a comedy. In order to break through, the focal point of the show needs to be the characters. That’s why Happy Endings worked. It’s why You’re the Worst works. A to Z could work, and some of it’s predictability could be allowed to slide, if it focuses on its characters and allows them to drive the show. Let’s remember that it’s only the second episode, meaning none of the characters are even close to fully formed, but the good news is the writers seem to understand the notion of being “character-driven.” “B is for Big Glory,” written by Ryan Koh, focused more on the people than the situations, allowed them to create humor (albeit not much) in otherwise banal setups. Had this been a Season Two episode, it could have been wickedly good or, more realistically, wholly entertaining from outset to credits. The characters need time to grow, and they will if the writers continue to put them first. Luckily, that shouldn’t be much of an issue given the talent of the cast.
Both Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti could carry a show all their own. Together, they have the chance to create one of TV’s most lovable couples. Their chemistry is already there and, given the proper time, the two will only become more fun to watch. The night’s only true surprise was how enjoyable Henry Zebrowski’s performance as Andrew’s sidekick, Stu, was. In the pilot, Stu was just another of the, suddenly abundant, bearded goofballs on network TV. In week two, he’s still a bearded goofball, but Zebrowski’s performance has already moved the character from a doltish jerk with a penchant for crude one-liners, to something far weirder. Stu is also the sole comedic force the show has to offer at the moment, harboring the majority of the laughs throughout last night’s show. The comedy is, admittedly, broad, but thanks to smart writing and Zebrowski’s commitment, it works. Sadly, Stu’s counterpart, the aggravating Stephie (Lenora Crichlow), elicits groans whenever she speaks. Perhaps a prescription of more time is all that is needed, but it’s hard to see an endpoint in which Stephie becomes both necessary and fun to watch.
A to Z is in an odd place. Like most new comedies, it is not incredibly good, but it’s also not entirely terrible. Unless something divine happens, it’s likely to never be a top comedy on television, something worth putting aside 30 minutes every week for. But, it could become a solid show, one that you catch up with when you can. The problem is that that formula often doesn’t work on network television, where the worst diagnosis to have can be: needs time to grow.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.