Of NBC’s comedy pilots, A to Z feels the most complete. This isn’t to say that none of their other comedy pilots were good—I liked Marry Me, for example—but rather that A to Z has a clear premise and announces its intentions in very plain terms. It is the story of a relationship between two characters, told from A to Z, that will span a set amount of time and reach a meaningful point of conclusion by the end of its first season.
For some pilots, press tour is about critics looking for answers because the show is purposefully vague, or because—as discussed in a separate piece—there are changes going on behind-the-scenes. In the case of A to Z, though, the critics in the room have questions about details that are offered by the pilot, which is structured to the point where critics have enough information to have specific lines of inquiry that the pilot itself forces into the conversation.
While both Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman got questions about their chemistry as the romantic couple at the heart of the series, as well as questions about their notable fates in their previous projects (How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men, respectively), a lot of questions were directed to creator Ben Queen and producers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. How will the show balance its “relationship comedy”—they avoided “romantic comedy” as a term—with its workplace structure? How will the season be structured relative to their relationship? And how do you intend to have a series run for multiple seasons if you’re setting such a clear timeframe for the story of this relationship to unfold in? (I should admit at this point that two of these questions were mine, so it’s possible I’m more invested in the structure of the series than your average person.)
The answers were not necessarily unexpected: in general, the pilot’s specificity is all within a margin of error by which they can fudge with details to turn this into a hit should it unexpectedly break free from a very tough timeslot where comedy has had trouble gaining traction for NBC and become a major hit. Speaking after the panel, Queen noted the inherent frustration to a panel like this one: he knows where this story was going, and could answer these questions with very specific details, but he doesn’t want to reveal too many spoilers. A to Z is a show that prompts specific questions, but since he isn’t in a position to offer specific answers, Queen is left making promises that they understand the task at hand as opposed to being able to directly respond to critics’ inquiries. All told, it was a promising panel in this regard, with Queen speaking passionately about the project and the cast showing some nice chemistry.
That said, though, there are also some smaller details that speak to the show’s future. For me, my initial question about the show somewhat strangely revolved around its episode title scheme, which seemed like it would be a logical part of the series given its title. As one would expect, they’re using the “A is for ____” structure for their titles, although with some combinations—Queen offered “LMNO” as a potential option for this—to help them cram all 26 letters into a single season. Whether or not there are contingency plans should the show receive a reduced back order was unclear, but Queen had clearly thought out different titles he wanted to work with, and the thematic storylines that would coincide with those ideas.
He also pulled in new mysteries that critics didn’t address directly, but are nonetheless baked into the series’ identity. Although not part of the announced case of the series, many recognized Katey Sagal as the voice of the series’ narrator, who is responsible for setting up the “relationship from A to Z” structure. Queen referred to the narrator as a character in her own right, something the pilot doesn’t necessarily point to but suggests an opportunity to see the narration as another element evolving alongside the characters and their relationship. Later, he specifically noted the possibility of using the narrator as a framework around which to play with non-linear storytelling (including a potential Sliding Doors episode), so there’s another mystery added to the collection of what he hopes viewers will connect with over the course of the series.
Queen comes back to television having dramatically changed his profile in the years since: drawing on his own relationship with his wife, he’s created his first series since Fox’s high-concept Drive—which 2007 Myles wrote about—after having spent time at Pixar, where he worked on two films (earning a writing credit on Cars 2 while working in a different capacity on another project he can’t name). He compares that experience to graduate screenwriting school, citing the influence of John Lasseter and emphasizing the focus on character central to the animation studio’s output, and thus central to his return to television.
A to Z is one of a number of relationship series on broadcast networks this year. It also, by nature of these very specific questions and the presence of a relationship timeline at its core, evokes How I Met Your Mother in ways that go beyond Milioti’s casting and raises questions about longevity. But the idea of—as pitched by Queen—an earnest relationship comedy built around pop culture references and featuring two leads with considerable chemistry is the kind of foundation that’s inherently hard to root against, which is why it’s so hard to see it in a difficult Thursday timeslot that feels sent to wither in the wake of football and Scandal in preparation for a more aggressive Thursday relaunch in the new year.
A to Z debuts October 2nd at 9:30/8:30c on NBC.