With fingers crossed that the holiday theme might bring some extra eyeballs—and with its own eyes on that post-Christmas move to Thursday nights—Up All Night shoots for “holiday extravaganza” territory with “First Christmas.” The episode stops short of having Ava sing a medley of holiday standards, but it does cram an awful lot of material into the space of a half-hour. In a way, it’s like a stealth pilot for viewers who’ve heard about the show that’s joining the Thursday-night lineup in January but have yet to watch it. Previously established themes—“Reagan has control issues,” “Chris questions his masculinity,” “Ava’s just plumb crazy”—are revisited, and we get another visit from Reagan’s mother, Dr. Angie Chafin, whose tendency to read too deeply into things and meddle in her daughter’s affairs both factor into the story. And it’s all dressed up in wonderfully tacky Christmas decorations!
It’s too bad, then, that the story buried beneath all those cinnamon-scented trappings—Reagan just wants her and Chris’ first Christmas with Amy to be extra-special—would’ve made a fine enough acknowledgement of the season on its own. “First Christmas” doesn’t need Chris to go through a personal “Gift Of The Magi” arc or Ava to stalk Jason Lee’s Kevin as he celebrates the holiday with his ex-wife. As a result, the episode sort of ends up looking a little like Gene and Terry’s tinsel- and faux snow-covered lawn.
Reagan’s plot isn’t just the best-executed of the episode—it’s also the one which helps refine a point that Up All Night has pushed in its most recent episodes. In her attempt to give Amy the overblown Christmas she never got as a child, Reagan underlines the notion that it’s not always Ava who makes the world of Ava chaotic. Reagan’s obsessiveness is a constant presence, and by playing it up in episodes like “Week Off” and “First Christmas,” the series builds a much-needed bridge across the divide between the Brinkley house and the Ava offices. If that means bringing some outlandish edges to the typically low-key environment of Up All Night’s domestic comedy, so be it. We can only expect Will Arnett and Christina Applegate to be funny on their own for so long before they need a thread like Reagan’s over-indulgence of the holiday spirit to come along and prop them up for a bit. The end of that particular plot was easy to predict—Amy’s an infant, after all, and something like Reagan and Angie falling off a ladder was bound to delight her more than a plastic Santa—but everything that came before was a welcome sign of the series finding its footing.
It’s the busyness elsewhere in “First Christmas” that makes the show look less sure of itself. Christmas is certainly a good time to step back and re-examine the relationships at a show’s core, but Chris and Ava’s brief moments of bonding here just felt like distractions from their own ongoing concerns. For Chris, that meant another good, long look at what it means to be a man/husband/father—and while the show has derived a lot of laughs from the character’s previous confrontations with these issues, it’s dealt with sloppily here. Especially if the overall message of “First Christmas” is one about the true, non-frivolous nature of the holiday, because Reagan’s reaction to the “di-a-mond” bracelet goes directly against that Grinch-heart-swelling sentiment. Sure, it required Chris to part with pieces of his past—including good ol’ Shanny—but the O. Henry-indebted twist at the end feels like a quick corrective to some very shallow behavior from Reagan. At least we got to see Will Arnett fumble through that department-store setpiece in order to get to that conclusion, though.
Of course, I’m writing this as someone who’s given a close viewing to all 11 episodes of Up All Night that have made it to air so far. If my “stealth pilot” theory is correct, first-time viewers get a fairly funny, non-diverting introduction to Ava, whose antics are dialed back considerably here. Though it definitely says something about the broadness of the character that entering a stranger’s house in order to spy on her boyfriend in his non-existent hot tub is “dialing back.” There’s a real sweetness in her relationship with Kevin that echoes the genuineness of the Chris-Reagan dynamic, so maybe a little light stalking and cheeseball-gorging was necessary to add some variety to the tone of “First Christmas.” Unfortunately, there’s a little too much variety to this episode. Sure, the holidays make people do crazy things—like take a long drive to steal your neighbors’ plastic Santa—but “First Christmas” isn’t the episode to make Up All Night newcomers do something crazy like follow the show to Thursday nights. They’d be better served by one of the reruns that’ll be airing in the meantime.
- Chris thinks through Angie’s odd way with onomatopoeia: “Ga-goosh? Oh, I’m sorry, is that a penis sound?”
- Angie’s Christmas traditions are not in line with the TV Club Advent Calendar: “I don’t know this ‘Grinch’ you speak of. What is that—a Dickensian character?
- Chris, in the wake of his disastrous trip to the mall and a run-in with Reagan’s driveway trimmings: “That was like an elf decoration that I hit, and not like a little man or anything?”
- Good bye, old cardboard friend: “If only Shanny was here to see this.” “I still dont know who that is.”