Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Parents" just don't understand*

Blythe Danner and Richard Schiff as Reagan's parents in "Parents."
Up All Night started out promising, but a little rough. The show hadn't quite figured out what tone it wanted to strike, veering between the realism of Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) learning how to cope with parenthood and the zany, 30 Rock-esque antics of Maya Rudolph's Ava. Last night's "Parents" still suffered a bit from sudden shifts in tone but, despite a few flat moments in the Ava storyline, the episode was a great example of how the series is coming into its own.

"Parents" was excellent in large part because the episode dealt with a relatable subject: the tense, regressive relationships that often spring up between parents and their adult children. Tension between parents and children is hardly something new on TV - I talked recently about the toxic parents of The Big Bang Theory - but Up All Night, as usual, presented a lovely, nuanced portrayal of Reagan's relationship with her mother Angie (Blythe Danner). Watching Reagan act like a teenager whenever her mother appeared was not only funny, but an honest depiction recognizable by anyone who has been held to a curfew when home from college. Reagan diving behind the couch and sobbing into a pillow that no one understands her were hilarious, but they were also instantly identifiable to anyone who has been in a similar situation.

It helped that Danner's portrayal of Angie showed that she was a problematic woman without being unsympathetic. The character could have been Dr. Beverly Hofstadter, but rather than playing her as an ice queen Danner chose to play her as a somewhat selfish and pompous, but still caring, mother. It helped that her relationship with her husband, Richard Schiff's Dean, was warm and relatable. Dean's gentle ribbing of his wife's continued insistence that the party thrown for her book release was "embarassing" was a beautiful example of the way this show understands the interaction between long-term couples. This understanding comes up in Chris and Reagan's relationship as well. The moment when Chris points out to Reagan that the reason no one understands her is because she's talking into a pillow is both funny and comforting, showing the ease of the couple's relationship and the way they rely on each other.

My favorite moment in the episode, however, had nothing to do with either Reagan or Angie. That's not because I didn't love their character arc, but because Arnett and Schiff did such a beautiful job with the scene where Chris confides in Dean about his newfound fear of death (the result of an expiration date on a lifetime subscription to Sports Illustrated). Dean, a therapist, doesn't try to counsel Chris or talk him out of his fear. Instead, he opens up and, in a lovely moment of catharsis for both characters, confesses that death terrifies him, and reveals his solution: alcohol. The scene is played for laughs, but neither Arnett nor Schiff goes over-the-top with their performances, imbuing the moment with a real poignancy.

As usual, the rough spots in the episode were centered around Ava. Her scenes weren't all bad - in particular, her reminder to Reagan that her mother could be a lot worse was great, and Rudolph's delivery sold the line about her mother's partner, a jazz drummer called the Captain - but her complete inability to remember anything about her crew seemed overly detached, even for Ava. Dale's death montage was certainly funny, with its repetition of the one picture of the dearly departed sound technician and shots of his W-4 form, but Ava's insistence on singing over the montage seemed oddly tone-deaf (figuratively, not literally). "Parents" showcased how well the show can mix humor with realism; if only it could figure out how to mix Chris and Reagan with Ava.

*I apologize for the forced Will Smith reference. It's late, and it just happened that way.

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