Left, Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn star in "Free Agents." Right,… (Mike Ansell / Trae Patton…)
NBC, which has long made Thursday the bunker for its comedy, moves into Wednesday this week with a pair of solidly constructed new sitcoms, "Free Agents" and "Up All Night," about grown-ups in moments of midlife transition. Compared with the metafictions and mockumentaries and postmodern ironies that have come to characterize the Thursday night comedies, they are more reality-based, more particularly concerned with relationships and maturity and, in a less than sentimental way, matters of the heart.
In "Free Agents," based on a British series of the same name, Hank Azaria plays Alex, a recently divorced sad dad working in a PR firm alongside Kathryn Hahn's Helen, whose fiancée died a year before. We begin with them rebounded into bed together, uncomfortably. She would like to keep the distance he already considers closed. "You remember all those times before when we didn't sleep together," she tells him coolly. "Like that." But Helen, who is all business at one moment and a wreck the next, has got issues of her own, swigging wine with ABBA on repeat as she roams an apartment dominated by photos of her dead intended.
Although these push-me-pull-you relations form the spine of the narrative, this is also a workplace comedy; all of the regulars are colleagues, led by boss Stephen, played by Anthony Head (reprising a role from the British original), whom you will remember as Giles of Sunnydale. A person who forces intimacies from and upon people he doesn't actually care about, he massages Alex's shoulders even as he advises him to "forget about your life" and concentrate on work. Natasha Leggero also stands out as a secretary with attitude. When Azaria asks her to "turn down the sass maybe one little notch," she replies, "It's not sass, this is how it is; lions don't eat deer 'cause they're sassy."
In "Up All Night," Will Arnett, who has on television played mostly strange men of stunted emotional growth, plays a recognizably real person, married to an equally actual Christina Applegate. As in the lovely late "Samantha Who?" Applegate is a woman whose wild days and reckless nights are largely behind her, though here it is the presence of a new, seemingly unplanned baby daughter and not a case of amnesia that has reset her life. Both long for the time when "we were world-class idiots," irresponsibly responsible to no one but themselves. Arnett's Chris hangs on to a threadbare T-shirt because it's what he was wearing the first time he saw Van Halen; she imagines Matt Lauer telling her from the television, "I'm not sure you can rock that skirt anymore."
Whether arguing over who gets less sleep or surrendering to a night of Jäger shots and karaoke, the leads work well together — they seem plausibly married — and with the show's third star, Maya Rudolph as Applegate's boss and, I guess, best friend: Oprah Winfrey in all but name. Oprah was one Rudolph's stock characters from her years on "Saturday Night Live," for which series creator Emily Spivey wrote and whose Lorne Michaels produces here as well, and she hits that ground running.
Both series offer pilots that are tight and often funny — "Up All Night" is the one I'd save first if we were all together on a sinking ship, as if that could happen, but "Free Agents" has its moments and fine performances — and also make one wonder about the long run. The original series (which will run on BBC America, beginning Oct. 8) required all of six episodes; if all goes as it is supposed to in American broadcast TV, its domestic counterpart will need to spin its not-a-relationship relationship over 22 episodes a year, and even reckoning his compensatory dry wit, Azaria's character's teary neediness is wearing even after half an hour.
For its part, "Up All Night" seems to want more regular characters for the principals to play against. (Nick Cannon is in the cast as Rudolph's announcer, but appears only glancingly in the pilot.) But its little central family may suffice, after all. The show can be, in odd passing moments, unexpectedly, almost nervily touching. Imagining their life far into the future, Applegate tells her daughter, "Then one day when you come to visit me in the nursing home and they ask me who's there to see me, I'll say, 'It's my daughter, Amy.'"
'Up All Night'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and sex)