TV Review: NBC's 'Up All Night'
Likable comedy could be really good if the workplace material gets up to speed
As hard as it is to believe, I'm not an inexhaustibly gouting fountain of hatred, much to the disappointment/relief of Mario Lopez. I spent a lot of time last night and early this morning ranting and raving about the new CW reality show "H8r." I felt like I got that out of my system, but at least in the immediate present, my bile supplies are a little low.
That means I can't tackle NBC's new comedy "Free Agents," which has a special premiere tonight and is oh-so-very-bad. I'll try to get to it this afternoon, perhaps in shortened form, if I've recharged.
Fortunately, NBC is giving a special premiere to a second comedy tonight after the finale of "America's Got Talent" -- because using that slot for "Outlaw" last season worked oh-so-very-well -- and it's a comedy I kinda like.
"Up All Night" is a loose, well-acted single camera comedy that has potential to grow into something far funnier, even if early indications on its capacity for evolution have been largely negative.
A full (far shorter than "H8r") review of "Up All Night" after the break...
There's a simplicity to "Up All Night" that I find admirable.
Written by Emily Spivey ("Parks and Recreation"), "Up All Night" focuses on thirtysomething parents Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett). Together for seven years, they have a baby and their lives change. Suddenly they struggle with proper parenting, they struggle with their new professional identities -- he stays at home with the baby, while she returns to work -- and they struggle with the idea that they can't be the carefree people they once were.
In broad strokes, "Up All Night" could be pretty generic stuff, though TV has traditionally had some reticence when it comes to close examinations of parenting. While FOX's solid "Raising Hope" would be a worthy current counter-example, the normal TV tendency with babies is to make them an occasionally available C-story, but one that can be set aside if your wee stars get colicky or grow in strange ways that require recasting to maintain appearances. [Insert your own obligatory "Baby Gracie Belle Is An Alien" Joke Here.]
But "Up All Night" is determined to do well by the realities of contemporary parenting. Or I assume that it is. I haven't had sustained exposure to an infant since my brother was born and 7-year-old Dan's memories lack any kind of specificity. I can only go by feel and all of the domestic dramedy and interaction between Reagan, Chris and their new baby feels exactly right to this complete outsider, whether it's complaining about the efficacy and efficiency of wipes or playing early-morning games of gamesmanship about who missed out on the most sleep over a long night.
Directed by James Griffiths, the home scenes in "Up All Night" have a fly-on-the-wall immediacy that takes advantage of some of the better conventions of the faux-documentary format -- like the relaxed single-cam visuals and the ability to utilize bleeped swearing -- without forcing any comparisons to "Parks and Recreation" or "The Office" or "Modern Family." They don't contribute to a fast-paced episodic narrative, they just capture moments.
I don't want to say that Arnett and Applegate, who both have babies to go home to at the end of the day, have never been better. That would be silly. But both Arnett and Applegate are exceptional comic actors who I rarely think of in terms of naturalism. Gob Bluth is a pantheon character and Arnett has done a slew of Emmy worth guest spots and cameos, but it's hard to remember him delivering many lines of dialogue that didn't come with ironic quotation marks around them. Kelly Bundy is also a pantheon character, while her "Friends" and "Samantha Who?" work were worthy of their Emmy attention, but a certain archness has been built into the best of Applegate's performances. But in the domestic scenes, you're not looking at Will Arnett or Christina Applegate characters so much as naturalistically befuddled parents.
There's a big part of me that would happily watch an entire show of barely joined vignettes built around a weekly theme of some sort. But that series would run into the aforementioned baby issues and although "Up All Night" has a darned good baby (twins, one assumes), you never want to leave your show without a convenient way to leave the home for as long as possible.
It's in this department that "Up All Night" struggles.
The show has been designed as a three-hander, with Maya Rudolph as the focus of Applegate's non-domestic life. Figuring out what that means isn't as straight-forward as the rest of the series, because when Reagan leaves the house, she departs that fly-on-the-wall realism and enters a workplace sitcom, albeit without a shift to a multi-cam format (which would have been interesting, experimental and would have allayed many of the problems that plague the workplace segment of "Up All Night."
You see, Will Arnett and Christina Applegate are playing parents, but Maya Rudolph is playing a sitcom character, though one of the only revisions that side of the story hasn't had would be to have Maya Rudolph literally play a sitcom character. Originally, Rudolph was a high powered publicist and although that was my least favorite side of the pilot, I loved her line-readings and was interested in the tension that her obliviously anti-baby character created with Reagan.
In the new version, Rudolph's just doing a variation on her Oprah Winfrey, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's sure as heck a familiar thing. Because the domestic stuff from the original pilot went untouched, I came away from the new version of "Up All Night" feeling like all of Rudolph's scenes were written only to fill certain limited gaps in an Avid editing sequence, rather than being written for humor. And, as a result, they're not only not funny, but they also mess with the rhythms developed in the original script and pilot. For some reason Rudolph's from-a-different-show character felt more organic originally, but that's organic-by-degrees. I don't think anybody who watched either pilot, no matter which workplace take you preferred, would make the argument that that was the side that worked better. But even the flawed and not funny talk show stuff isn't without potential, albeit unrealized, though integrating it may be a long-term challenge, one that leaves me with reservations.
But the baby stuff is where "Up All Night" lives and where it fortunately succeeds. Without making me laugh, it made me happy and it let me appreciate Arnett and Applegate. That's the part that I'll stick around for in future weeks, while hoping that the Maya Rudolph side rises to its level.
[I think this letter grade computes to a solid B+ for the Baby Side and C/C- for the Rudolph Talk Show Side.]
"Up All Night" premieres on NBC at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, September 14. It'll really air on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting on September 21.