THE SHOW "Free Agents"

WHEN | WHERE Previews Wednesday night at 10:30 on NBC/4. Moves into its regular time slot, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. next week.

REASON TO WATCH Hank Azaria. On second thought . . .

WHAT IT'S ABOUT There's a public relations agency in a big city where two lost souls are employed. Alex (Hank Azaria) is newly divorced and bursts into hot tears when he thinks of a family party he misses. Helen (Kathryn Hahn, probably best know to TV viewers as Lily Lebowski, the grief counselor on "Crossing Jordan") is still grieving for her husband who died a year earlier. She copes by drinking a significant amount of wine and cherishing his photos -- dozens of them -- that are strewn about her office and apartment. Both fall into each other arms, reluctantly, while tormented by office mates and their boss, Stephen (Anthony Head), who could care less about their fractured psyches.

MY SAY Azaria has had so many good roles ("Huff," a multitude of "Simpsons" voices) that it comes as a bit of a shock to actually discover him in a mediocre one. (To be fair, he has appeared in several TV turkeys, although the last, "Imagine That," came and went nearly a decade ago.) In "Free Agents," he's effectively reduced to spouting vacant, lifeless lines, while his valiant, attractive co-star punches out even more innocuous ones.

What's missing here, besides laughs? Chemistry. Azaria is a gifted actor whose repertory nevertheless doesn't usually include "romantic lead." Also absent is soul. To feel these lives of quiet desperation -- and of course then locate some source of amusement in them -- there has to be at minimum a glimmer of recognition, or a sense that on some level their misery is real. But amid the standard sitcom cutout figures, the only things that feel real here are the potted plants.

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BOTTOM LINE A joyless grind.

GRADE D