One of two things will likely come to mind when you take your first glance at NBC's new love story sitcom A to Z . One: this show, with its generic premise and stereotyped characters, is exactly like every show of its kind to come before it. Two: this show is exactly like one very specific show to come before it — How I Met Your Mother.
Although each of these accusations is understandable, neither one is giving A to Z the terrific credit it deserves. Standing alone, any one of A to Z's characters seems like he or she was pumped straight out of the studio mill: at the center, we've got the hopeless romantic (Ben Feldman) yearning for "the one," and the hyper-professional skeptic (Cristin Milioti) who "doesn't date." Surrounding them, you have the duplicitous Lothario (Henry Zebrowski), and the woman who gets enveloped altogether by her relationships (Lenora Crichlow). All old hat. But in A to Z, it seems as though there might actually be some exploration of what makes these characters, and their sociological tropes, tick.
One tier further from the center, we have types less often ventured on television: a recently split couple (Parvesh Cheena and Hong Chau) festering in the failure of their relationship, and a dating website manager (Christina Kirk) who monetizes the idea of romance and relationships. The inclusion of these characters is key to what makes A to Z seem like it has more going for it than a few laughs and an extra coat of sugar.
Cheena, Chau, and Kirk's roles in the show add an edginess to A to Z's exploration of romantic ideologies. While Andrew (Feldman) and Zelda (Milioti) tackle the genre on the well-worn and reliable affable sliding scale between idealism and pragmatism, their supporting players look like they're actually setting up to have fun with the more toxic components of and perspectives on modern dating and relationships. As such, A to Z seems to be using old dogs to teach us all some new tricks.
This also plays into the second accusation the show is bound to heed: its comparisons to How I Met Your Mother. Yes, there's a voiceover... a voiceover documenting a love story... a voiceover documenting a love story that involves an idealistic young creative wooing a hard-nosed professional who doesn't share his beliefs in destiny. And yes... Cristin Milioti.
But while How I Met Your Mother can be credited itself for taking a look at relationship tropes (Marshall and Lily were a discussion on monogamy, Robin a term paper on the "anti-establishment" opposition to dating, and Barney a doctorate thesis on sexual promiscuity), all of its ideals come now as pretty dated.
And if we can say one thing for sure for A to Z, it feels rather fresh, and not simply in its casual approach to Internet dating. It does so in its eager exploration of the "stud" as a dying ideal: Andrew's pal Stu (Zebrowski) is dishonest, crass, aggressive, and interested only in sex... and is viewed as a childlike loser whose only redeeming quality is his friendship with the good guy at the center of the show. It does so, too, in its exploration of how relationships and dating influence our identities: Zelda's friend Stephie (Crichlow) purchases a trumpet just days after meeting a fellow she believes to be a jazz musician. And, perhaps most importantly, it does so with its dialogue, allowing characters to feel like they're of "today" even when spouting diatribes about the hands of fate.
Ultimately, A to Z insists that is has a lot more up its sleeve than many of its small screen rom-com predecessors. Thanks to a delightful cast and peppy script, it looks worthy of the benefit of the doubt.
Images: Jessica Brooks/NBC