Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: "Up All Night"

Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in Up All Night. Photo courtesy of tv.com.


Up All Night was, as you may recall, one of the new shows that I was most excited to watch this fall. It has a killer cast - Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph - and, based on the early trailer released during the upfronts, it managed to be funny while also being honest about the struggles of being a new parent. Having now seen the first episode, which aired Wednesday night on NBC, I still see a lot of potential in the show. There are, however, a few kinks that need to be worked out.

Let's start with the good. Applegate and Arnett give excellent, likable, grounded performances as Reagan and Chris, new parents who are struggling to balance jobs with their new baby while denying that they can't party like they used to. Arnett in particular gives a charming performance that, unlike so many of his great past roles (GOB Bluth and Devon Banks, to be precise), eschews over-the-top caricature in favor of a realistic portrait of a new stay-at-home father coming to grips with his obligations.

This isn't to say that the show is unfunny. It's definitely funny, although I found few laugh-out-loud moments and more sly, chuckle-inducing humor (this could be due to the fact that many of the pilot's best jokes were in the trailer that I had already seen). One of the funniest moments came when Chris, on a desperate search to find normal cheese, as opposed to "that fancy cheese over by the salad bar," happens upon an old lady who wants to tell him how cute his baby is. Twice. The fact that this innocent woman has "come after" baby Amy more than once sends Chris into a hilarious and believable spiral of paranoia about his child's well-being. Maybe it's just the fact that I grew up with an overprotective mother (hi Mom!), but this scene rang particularly true to me.

Some of the best scenes of the pilot, however, weren't really about baby Amy at all. They were about the  struggles that Chris and Reagan face as later-in-life parents, both of whom have successful careers, who are suddenly forced to face the fact that their entire life is about to change. To me, the character's ages really puts a fresh spin on what could be a fairly standard series about coping with a new baby. Chris and Reagan are very modern parents; they've been married for seven years in the pilot episode, they both already have fulfilling lives, and they still love to party. Their decision (or not - the first scene of the pilot shows Reagan taking a pregnancy test, but we don't really get a sense of whether the baby was planned) to have a baby at this time in their lives is an increasingly common one in a world where many people spend years getting advanced degrees and finding success in their careers before deciding to have children.

To me, Chris and Reagan are symbolic of the sort of delayed adulthood that is common these days (and I'm not criticizing - my fiance and I are both eagerly putting off full adulthood by getting advanced degrees - a trait that sets them apart from the previous generation of television parents. Their delayed adulthood also explains a scene that, I suspect, might strike some in the audience as an example of very bad parenting. On their anniversary, Chris and Reagan end up going out late, getting drunk and singing karaoke, only to wake up the next morning with hangovers and a crying baby in the next room. This is the sort of behavior that, in the different context, would come off as negligent; here, however, it serves as an example of the kind of sacrifices that new parents have to make in order to raise a child. The inane fight that Reagan and Chris have in the same scene is similarly realistic, and allows the show to express, through Chris, the anxiety that someone with a career can have when they leave to take care of a child.

This kind of fine-grained realism, however, is shattered in any scenes that involve Maya Rudolph's Ava. Part of the problem seems to be that Rudolph's character was originally conceived as a publicist rather than a Tyra-esque talk show host, and the quick retooling of the pilot allowed for cracks in the scenes involving Ava's talk show. The bigger problem, however, is that Rudolph's scenes play like they're from a completely different show - their aesthetic is the cartoonish surreality of 30 Rock rather than the realism of the other two-thirds of the episode. The thing is, Rudolph is a wonderful naturalistic actress - see Away We Go if you don't believe me - who has clearly been directed here to behave like one of her SNL characters rather than a real human being. Ava's cartoonish, party-all-the-time vibe makes her a counterpoint to Chris and Reagan's new life, but her diva antics also make it difficult to understand why Reagan is such a close friend of hers. I would like to see the writers humanize Ava by delving into her friendship with Reagan and allowing Rudolph to take her performance down a notch.

Up All Night has the makings of an excellent, realistic-yet-comic look at a subset of parents that hasn't been thoroughly explored in popular culture: older, married couples who are firmly established in their "adult" lives without really being adults, and who find that parenthood completely changes their lives by, in some way, forcing them to finally grow up. The show needs to retool the talk-show portions of the story, and add its very realistic perspective to that underdeveloped story thread. The tension between parents and their childless friends is a very interesting one to explore, and if Up All Night can convincingly portray that tension, it could become a great show instead of a merely interesting one: a Modern Family for the almost-adult set.

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