Serendipity meets (500) Days of Summer, with an added twist for people who like lists, in the new series A to Z, one of NBC’s additions to its ailing Thursday comedy lineup. The title holds a double meaning: the cute couple under scrutiny, played by Ben Feldman (whose Michael Ginsberg was last seen being carried off Mad Men in a stretcher) and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother), are named Andrew and Zelda. As described to the audience by narrator Katey Sagal, the series will detail their entire relationship “from A to Z”.
And when she says “entire”, she doesn’t just mean in-depth; it’s an implied time-bomb countdown to The End. We’re told up front Andrew and Zelda’s relationship will last exactly eight months, three weeks, five days, and one hour. It’s not often we meet a narrator presiding over the story with a stopwatch.
For value-added novelty, the episode titles will count forward through the alphabet, one letter at a time. The pilot, “A is for Acquaintances”, begins exactly at that level: Andrew works at Wallflower, an online dating service whose higher-ups have realized that people who find their true love tend to stop paying monthly fees, so they’re retooling their marketing to de-emphasize romantic long-term matchmaking in favor of tawdry Tinder hook-ups. Zelda is an attorney and a dissatisfied customer who just-so-happens to live and work in the company’s vicinity, and who agrees to come in for an “exit interview”. Within minutes we’re at the necessary meet-cute, but with an added dimension to it: Our Narrator informs us the two have had nineteen previous near-meet-cutes without realizing it. Our Narrator likes to keep a creepily meticulous scorecard.
Andrew is the more old-fashioned of the two, a believer in Destiny and True Love. Zelda is a former Catholic schoolgirl who now subscribes to the random view of life. A quick outing for drinks sparks their first conflict when Andrew swears he can remember seeing her years ago at a concert from a distance, and therefore this encounter can’t be a coincidence and They Were Meant To Be, even though they’re still on first-drinks. Zelda denies all and wigs out a tad. Within minutes we’re already in will-they-or-won’t-they territory. Their respective best friends are predictably unhelpful — Ben’s pal Stu (Henry Zebrowski, one of the Wolf of Wall Street dudebros) is all the dumb-buddy clichés, while Zelda’s roommate Stephie (Being Human‘s Lenora Chrichlow) is one of those characters called in whenever the writers think a scene needs more arguing. Even less helpful are the other, wackier Wallflower employees, including programmers played by Parvesh Cheena (Gupta from the previous NBC comedy Outsourced, now minus accent) and Hong Chau (Treme) who have the skills to dig through years-old concert footage to isolate images of a single crowd member, but lack the people skills to recognize said member when standing right next to them.
When the opening monologue described Andrew and Zelda as a “guy’s guy” and a “girl’s girl”, I expected to tune out in minutes, but as upscale young professionals with whom I have little in common, they have a certain chemistry even when the jokes fall flat. I smiled more than I expected I would, but the best moments belong sadly not to them, but to a Special Guest Star cannily playing herself at a random moment when Andrew thinks she can help him most. Her response is priceless, and her scene before the end credits is cute.
Besides the two leads, the show has two other things going for it:
1. As a show set in the Here and Now, it does a much, much better job than the similarly modern-minded Selfie of integrating current trends and fads into the premise and dialogue without sounding belabored or desperate to connect with the coveted young demographics.
2. I foresee some potentially heavy unpacking to be done in future episodes when themes and deadlines clash. Our Couple is technically destined to be together, but they’re not destined to stay together. I’m wondering what Our Narrator will have to say about that, about the impermanence of Destiny, and about what happens when That Which Was Meant to Be hits an unexpected dead end. Was it random after all, or was it their fate only to cross paths for a specific time frame? If the show’s not canceled by episode four, I expect by episode 26 Our Narrator will have collected all their personal data and psychological profiles and be fully prepared to deliver a thoroughly invasive analysis guaranteed to offend both Andrew and Zelda. That could be some fantastic fourth-wall smashing in the making.
(The A to Z pilot is now streaming online at NBC.com or On Demand. For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)