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'A To Z': Not A Great Romantic Comedy Yet, But Give It A Letter Or Two

We've been over this point before: particularly with comedy, it can be hard to tell from a pilot what the show is going to be like. But when you've seen a few, you can sometimes tell the difference between fundamentally misbegotten projects, like the ABC romantic comedy Manhattan Love Story, and fundamentally functional shows that have kinks to work out, like the NBC romantic comedy A To Z.

The show's come-on is packed with gimmicks: It's called A To Z, and the leads' names are Andrew and Zelda, and each episode will be styled the same way as the pilot (which is called "A Is For Acquaintances"), and it will follow their eight-plus months of dating (whether dating will give way to a breakup, marriage or something is not specified), and there's a narrator (Katey Sagal), and the pilot revolves around a goofy story about destiny. It's a lot to take.

And yet, once you get past all that — once you get past all the stuff that's being used to make the show stand out — the show is pretty good.

Andrew is played by Ben Feldman, who recently wrapped up a run as young advertising newcomer Michael Ginsberg on Mad Men. Zelda is played by Cristin Milioti, whose basic delightfulness — which first got major attention when she was in Onceon Broadway — was a terrible curse to the writers who came up with the conclusion of her arc as the mother on How I Met Your Mother. They are both enormously appealing, and although it's hard to root for anybody in a dopey story like the one that's told in the pilot, and although how they get to dating is goofy as all get out, they do what leads have been doing in your sillier romantic comedies for decades and decades: they make it charming.

And while the writing does fall into some conventions that are weirdly everywherethis fall (Henry Zebrowski as the umpteenth vulgar and bearded best friend of the season), there are jokes with some specificity and style, as with Zelda's description of a band she had to see with her ex-boyfriend, which she describes as "one of those groups with like 50 people on stage, and everybody looks like they're from the Dust Bowl." I mean ... we all know those bands — particularly when she adds a question about why they say "Hey!" so much during songs.

I often find myself wanting to watch the same actorsin a better show, but in this case, as I watched the pilot, I wanted to watch these actors doing these performances written by these writers, only without the baggage of the alphabet and the cutesy "meant to be" business and the bearded friend. That may mean that what I really wanted was, in fact, this show in about five episodes when they're not hard-selling like it's Black Friday, when it's content to be just a cute comedy about dating.

It's not there yet, but it has the capacity to get there. And given this fall's crop of cute romances, I'll take it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.