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'A to Z' react: Feldman, Milioti elevate lackluster love story

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A To Z 02
Trae Patton/NBC

A to Z lays out its hand in the opening minutes of the pilot. Narrator Katey Sagal explains that lead characters Andrew and Zelda “will date for 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, and 1 hour. This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship, from A to Z.” The show has an endgame in mind from the start and seems overly aware of its existence as a romantic comedy—those frequent (500) Days of Summer comparisons in recent months are more than apt.

While the show can’t quite live up to its predecessors in the initial outing, the first episode, “A is for Acquaintances,” is an incredible example of how the chemistry between two leads can carry a show that stumbles more often than not.

Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti) are of two different minds when it comes to love. Andrew works at a dating website, Wallflower, devoting his life to helping people find their perfect match. Zelda, however, is wary of dating and would rather avoid the heartbreak that comes with it. The two meet when Zelda comes in to his office to discuss an issue with her Wallflower account.

After a few quick rounds of social network flirting, the two go on a first date. Everything seems to go well until Andrew suggests that they met previously at a concert. Andrew saw a girl in a silver dress, who he believes was Zelda, and he claims their meeting now must be destiny.

Zelda denies she was the girl, unable to handle the idea of fate. All hope seems lost, until Zelda realizes how much Andrew wants to make things works between them. She admits she was in fact that girl, and, in true rom-com fashion, the two share a romantic kiss—camera spinning around them—and decide to give the whole dating thing a try.

“Acquaintances” plays out like a mini-romantic comedy, speeding through the main couple’s initial rocky encounters to reach their big first kiss. The pace robs many of those story beats of much weight, and unfortunately the show’s view of gender does nothing to help the situation.

“Acquaintances” strangely enough starts out in a similar fashion to Manhattan Love Story, detailing how Andrew is a “guy’s guy” with a “surprising” soft side, and Zelda is a “girl’s girl” who can remain too guarded and curt. But thankfully, Feldman and Milioti are wonderful in their roles, even when the script gives them little fresh or exciting to play with. The episode springs to life whenever the two are onscreen, from their first walk through the Wallflower offices to their final romantic kiss. Both actors have an innate likability, but together, they’re a believable couple who, regardless of the show’s failings, made me want to keep watching.

Unfortunately, the rest of “Acquaintances” can’t quite live up to its leads. Both Andrew and Zelda’s best friends mostly exist to pull off punch lines that rarely land or push the plot along. They’re barely formed caricatures, and the show overall has an absence of laugh-out-loud moments—I vocally laughed at only one joke courtesy of two minor characters at the Wallflower offices.

The show’s lack of humor is likely a byproduct of A to Z‘s fixation on creating a premise and atmosphere so adorkable Zooey Deschanel would call it overkill. There’s Sagal’s introduction, a moment where she points out that Andrew and Zelda have been five feet away from each other on 19 occasions yet never met, Andrew’s Peter Pan syndrome focused on Back to the Future, and the couple’s best friends just happened to have slept together. The pilot seems so pleased with its cutesy nature that it gets in the way of interesting or funny character development.

Despite its fascination with self-awareness, A to Z is still worth a watch thanks to its leads. Milioti proved that even when How I Met Your Mother had long passed its golden years, she could inject the material with wonderful charm. And paired with Feldman, the couple’s energy lifts up everything around it.

Feldman and Milioti make me want to see what happens after those 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, and 1 hour. I just hope the show surrounding them learns to be funnier and less concerned with its own premise.