What is it?
The series opens immediately after the two lead characters, Alex (Stephen Mangan) and Helen (Sharon Horgan) have had sex in an ill-advised one night stand, whereupon Alex bursts into tears. He is going through a divorce from his wife and the mother of his children, while Helen is still recovering from the sudden death of her fiance shortly before their planned wedding. The two work in the same talent agency, run by the gregarious and utterly perverted Stephen Cauldwell (Anthony Stewart-Head), and the series charts their efforts to recover from their personal disappointments, alternately leaning on each other and falling out.
Free Agents ran for one series of six episodes on Channel 4 in 2008.
Why was it good?
Free Agents was an example of arguably a sub-genre within British TV comedy: the sad sitcom (see also Respectable and, at a push, Pulling and The Job Lot). Neither of the lead characters finds much solace over the course of the series. There’s a strong vein of embarrassment humour in it too, particularly for Horgan’s character, which is somewhat balanced by the pathos of Mangan’s.
The comedy is heightened by the strong dramatic premise; there is also some sharp verbal humour arising acutely from the characters’ situations, as Alex and Helen trade acute observational one-liners; it also attracted complaints for bad language from the Mary Whitehouse brigade, so it was doing something right.
It hardly needs saying, but the cast was brilliant: Mangan, Horgan and a superbly filthy and devilish performance from Head anchored the show, but credit should also go to Matthew Holness and Sara Pascoe in wonderful supporting roles.
Why is it underrated?
This is another of the shows that wasn’t poorly regarded at the time, but now seems to have become a bit forgotten due to the passing of time. I’m unsure why it didn’t get a second series: the ratings and critical reception were neither great nor awful from what I can tell; perhaps it was just never the plan by writer Chris Niel (himself also a talent agent). Whatever the reasons, the lack of a second series definitely represents an opportunity missed, it seems to me.
Can I watch it?
The show is currently available quite cheaply on DVD but not on 4OD at present, though it has been in the past so who know if it will turn up again?