Two minutes in, I already hated this show.
Over-narrated, unfunny, generally the worst. Two minutes, and the show was already a very bad How I Met Your Mother ripoff, right down to the sitcom royalty off-screen narrator (Katey Sagal, doing the best she can) and the fixed end point in the future (Andrew and Zelda will date for exactly 8 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, 1 hour). Hell, it even stars the Mother. I was wondering how I was going to get through it.
But then something strange happened. It made me laugh. The first good joke comes in the first office scene, as the head of an OKCupid-style dating site (Christina Kirk) rants about how bad for business it is when people actually find true love, and it's pretty funny. But it's one joke, and at that point you've just been through two really, really terrible minutes, and it's followed by some more bad material starring the leading man (name of Andrew, played by Ben Feldman (no relation)) and his sidekick (Henry Zebrowski).
But then Cristina Miloti gets her first real scene, and things start to turn around. That's followed by a few more mostly good jokes, until the excellent Lenora Crichlow (BBC's Being Human) shows up, absolutely slaying as Miloti's easily influenced, but extremely enthusiastic, best friend Stephie. Both Miloti and Crichlow are more than capable of spinning straw into gold (in fact, between this and HIMYM, Miloti's risking making a career out of it), and in A to Z they often have to… but that's not really a criticism; they can do it, that's why you hire them. Shit, Miloti single-handedly elevated the final season of HIMYM from unwatchable dreck to merely a bad show with a great performance (and the one episode that featured her most heavily was legitimately great, a singular oasis in a desert of hackneyed crap).
Anyways, about halfway through, A to Z had mostly won me over. It introduced the other two listed stars, Hong Chau and Parvesh Cheena, as a pair of computer programmers at the dating site who were once a couple. I've never seen either of them before but here they're both very good in limited screen time. Although the show had remained, and even embraced being, shamelessly HIMYM... I was ok with it, because it was making me laugh, particularly with a perfectly executed Baader-Meinhof joke. I was in.
So, naturally, the show then immediately fell off a cliff. The jokes remained mostly good- or at least not so bad that Miloti and Crichlow couldn't save most of them- but the writing became extremely problematic. I'm concerned that the writer of this episode, and head show runner, has never met an actual human woman. The third act revolves around Miloti's Zelda discovering that Andrew had used his position at the dating site, and two computer savvy co-workers, to stalk her across every available social media platform. This, mind you, is after he'd already Mosby'd their first date by telling her they were "meant to be." At first, Zelda rightly reams him for being a creepy, obsessive stalker. Crichlow chimes in, in another one of those scenes that probably wasn't very funny on paper but plays beautifully with Crichlow shouting and rambling.
Unfortunately, Zelda almost immediately changes her mind because she's "never had a guy try that hard" for her. This is stupid on a number of levels, not least because he didn't try remotely hard (he spent thirty seconds asking his friends to do him a favor), but moreover because it's fucking creepy and a gross violation of boundaries, and because up till that point in the show, Zelda had been a smart, independent character who stood up for herself and didn't much seem in any hurry to find a man- let alone a psychopathic stalker of one. Hell, when Miloti tries to forgive him for it, even HE knows it's ridiculous, which I guess kinda helps, I don't even know anymore. Hell, the characters had only had three short conversations prior to that point! They have no relationship to speak of, and she's got nothing to lose by moving on. She certainly has no reason to toss her principles and take a chance on a nut job creep who's quite literally committed a criminal invasion of privacy. It's ridiculous, and since the entire relationship the show is based on hinges on THAT decision, it's a pretty big deal that it's so stupid and inhuman.
Beyond that, there's also the question of the show's total lack of originality. This is a soup-to-nuts retread of How I Met Your Mother, from the hopeless romantic male lead to his horndog best friend, and not remotely ashamed of it. The plagiarism doesn't end there. Lenora Crichlow's character is just a British version of Rashida Jones' Anne Perkins from Parks and Rec, and since Jones is one of the show's two executive producers, I'm betting they're aware of it. Mostly, though, the show is content to be How I Met Your Mother But This Time The Narrator Is A Girl. Stu even breaks out his own (admittedly funnier) version of "Haaaaave you met Ted?"
And that's the crux of it; for all its failings, A to Z *is* funny, at least for a pilot. A lot of that's because of how good the female cast is (Miloti and Crichlow are in the same ballpark as early HIMYM Colbie Smulders, and both are leagues better already than Alyson Hannigan), but some of the writing is also pretty sharp. The male characters aren't at the same level (Jason Segel and Neal Patrick Harris are not walking through that door anytime soon), but they're fine. But is that enough to get past the terrible character work?
I honestly don't know. I'm going to keep watching in the hopes that the worst is behind us, that the show has established the relationship now and won't need to sell out its own character any further to perpetuate it, and that, thanks mostly to Miloti and Crichlow, it will remain funny regardless of whether or not it ever aspires to be anything more than How I Met Your Mother 2: At Least This Time We Cast Some Ethnic Folks (and to their credit, the main cast features an African American (or African British American), a probably Indian guy, and an Asian character they haven't bothered to delineate further).
And, hey, even if it does nothing more than ape HIMYM, at least it won't be any worse than the final few seasons of Ted, Barney, Robin, Lilly, and Marshall refusing to grow at all as characters or learn new jokes, right?