Freeform’s decision to pair their new shows Grown-ish and Alone Together is kind of perfect. The former features the college adventures of a group of friends as they venture into the real world and discover themselves on their way to becoming fully-formed adults. It’s like real college: full of hope, mistakes that you can recover from, and romantic naivete.
The other half of that coupling, Alone Together, is about two adults as they’ve already been living in the real real world. They live in L.A. where, if you’re not wealthy, tall and blonde, you’re one of the “small and undesirables” (as one of the leads declares themselves). Life doesn’t look like so much of an adventure anymore, but rather a series of blunders in which the (seemingly) perfect job or romantic conquest is constantly slipping through your fingers. Plus, you’ve been meaning to do that juice cleanse, but gosh you just haven’t had time to get to it…
That vision of millennial reality comes to us via co-creators Esther Povitsky, Benji Aflalo and Eben Russell with an assistance by the Lonely Island guys (who I could argue basically invented the millennial sense of humor, but that’s for another day). Povitsky and Aflalo both star as “Esther” and “Benji,” picking up where they left off in their short film of the same name from 2015. This pilot episode hews remarkably close to the short, not in plot, but in humor and characterization, which gives me a lot of hope that Povitsky and Aflalo know their characters much more than most writers and actors do during their pilot episode. That should be good for us, getting rid of that awkward period where a show – particularly a half-hour comedy – has to find and settle into its groove.
Instead, with Alone Together‘s pilot episode – written by series creators Povitsky, Aflalo, and Russell, and directed by Daniel Gray Longino – we get to know who these people are immediately. In the first scene, which is simultaneously funny, sweet and a little gross, Esther and Benji’s relationship dynamic and bad habits are economically delivered. Benji and Esther are just friends, even though several people either assume they’re together already or think they should be. As we witness throughout the episode, they have a rapport that is fantastic – not least because they clearly understand each other completely, and can be their grossest or most pathetic selves in front of each other – but because it is the epitome of “bickering.” The most humor is mined from their interactions with each other, and their ability to trap themselves in a whirlpool of deadpan insults and inside jokes. I began the episode intending to write down some of my favorite lines, but I couldn’t keep it up – honestly the subtle barbs and quips tossed out by Esther and Benji are relentless, but relentlessly enjoyable at the same time.
That’s not to say the supporting cast isn’t worth their salt, because they are. The plot of this episode works to casually and effectively introduce a few important side characters. We meet Benji’s real estate-rich older brother, Dean (Chris D’Elia, a perfect douche complete with that weird full-finger snapping) and fashion designer sister, Alia (the perfectly too-cool-for-you Ginger Gonzaga). Benji lives with Dean and so is reluctantly invited to his siblings’ pool party. There, the plot of the episode kicks in as Esther attempts to be cool and impress Alia in order to get a job. That works about as well as you might expect, particularly when Benji ruins her chances by first mentioning her “equator” and then introducing Alia to Charlotte (Justine Lupe), a leggy blonde who he hopes will date him in return for the job.
It isn’t long before Benji’s already weak chances for romance are dashed when Esther discovers that Charlotte is an escort, through the knowledge of their mutual friend, Jeff (Edgar Blackmon), who knows a lot about how escort websites work. I like Jeff already, as the introduction of a third wheel in this friendship is good for balance. It allows us to get a breather from Esther/Benji scenes and normalizes their friendship by at least allowing them each one more friend, especially one who is much more laid-back than they are.
Because Esther doesn’t have a “working credit card right now,” she signs up as an escort herself in order to access Charlotte’s profile to show Benji. Naturally, this results in someone messaging Esther. She doesn’t hesitate before accepting a date with a man (Jim O’Heir) who promises to let her wear sweats to her dream-fancy restaurant Mastro’s. Esther pursues this “relationship” for a full day before it turns “creepy” when he tries to kiss her. On the same day, Charlotte leaves Benji in the dust after being fired by Alia for being an escort (not very cool of Alia) and steals an expensive baseball card from his room on her way out.
Esther and Benji make a promise to each other to end their forays into escorting, which means that they immediately return to it. The next day, Benji waits in his “prom shirt” for the cheapest escort he could hire: an “Alicia Silverstein,” who turns out to be Esther in a sort-of Britney Spears “…Baby One More Time” get-up. Naturally, they both tell the other that they look like a “Jewish Annie the musical.” And they’re both kind of right (although Benji’s curls get him a little closer, in my mind). They agree that they’re going to die alone, but that might be okay because “small talk with dying people” is so uncomfortable anyway.
Altogether, the pilot episode is one of the better comedy pilots I’ve seen. I didn’t expect anything less, really, as in her most recent role as Maya on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Povitsky always delivers a fresh and off-kilter energy that is inherently watchable. I wasn’t familiar with Aflalo before this, but his deadpan stare and delivery perfectly matches Povitsky’s wide eyes and open face. As Jeff says, they are meant to be together “like O.J. and jail,” and if the ultimate arc of the series is Benji and Esther eventually becoming a couple, I’d be okay with that. Their chemistry as it is now is brittle enough to keep the eventual coupling from being too saccharine, which will relieve it of some of the tired tropes that come with “will-they-won’t-they” set-ups.
Freeform has been airing short promos for the series for at least a month now, and I haven’t gotten sick of them yet, which bodes well for the future enjoy-ability of the series. It’s already been renewed for a second season. The teaser for next week features an “embarrassment of Richards,” and I’m already looking forward to it.
Besides being mean to each other, and themselves, Povitsky and Aflalo are great at throwing away character information through dialogue. Below, some of what we learned this week:
Things We Learn About Esther:
- she wears her Dad’s old boxers (“they’re vintage”)
- “chubby hairy guys make me feel skinny and pretty”
- owns one towel
- doesn’t know who Ray Charles is
- pays for rent by AirBnB-ing her place while she crashes at Benji’s
Things We Learn About Benji:
- He relies on “fresh rounds” of gift cards from his parents
- hasn’t had a real, non-summer camp girlfriend
- has a trust fund that hasn’t kicked in yet
Names Alia calls Esther: Sarah, Edna