The other episode of Up All Night I’ve felt this lukewarm toward was “Mr. Bob’s Toddler Kaleidoscope,” which is the series’ most Amy-centric episode to date. (I’m not counting “Birth,” because while it’s technically Amy-centric—seeing as it’s about the day she was born and all—it’s more about how Chris, Reagan, and Ava react to the event, rather than its result.) “Hiring And Firing” puts Amy in the middle of its B-plot, where Chris is convinced that his daughter hates him. It’s a funny concept—and if that’s how Chris feels now, I’d love to see how he reacts to the teenaged Amy that really will hate him—but rather than confront the issue head-on, the episode dances around it. Chris isn’t allowed to face the fact that warm feelings aren’t a guaranteed mutual thing in a father-daughter relationship. Instead, the episode has the Brinkleys hire a babysitter to help ease the load. What follows is funny for a spell, but things go south when a little Grateful Dead encourages Chris’ suspicions that the new sitter is on drugs. He kind of has a point, though: You’ve got to be on drugs to find the music of the Grateful Dead appealing, amirite? (You know I’m right, imagined alarmist parents from the 1960s and ’70s.)
The worst thing that a “new parent” sitcom like Up All Night can do is concern itself too much with the kid. Amy’s cute and all, but she’s a very difficult character to develop at this point because the actress playing her has yet to develop the ability to speak. And so an episode like “Hiring And Firing” begins a few paces behind because it can only explore one side of the relationship in the Chris-Amy storyline. And while I love watching Will Arnett get himself into a mispronunciation fit because Chris and Reagan are interviewing a fetching babysitter candidate, it doesn’t really get at how the character is dealing with this development—or any of the new developments in his life since Amy’s arrival. Based on the epilogue, spending more time with Chris as he worked things out on the ice could’ve improved “Hiring And Firing.” His brief conversation with his fellow hockey-playing dad is better than the momentary exchanges Chris has with the babysitter.
“Hiring And Firing” is an example of Up All Night not meeting its cast halfway. These are wonderfully funny comedic performers who’ve proved themselves on this show and others, but tonight’s script just didn’t give them much with which to work. Its stories have simple enough premises—Reagan and Chris each have a problem stemming from the recent change in their lives—which are brought to satisfying conclusions by the end of the episode, but those problems don’t feel particularly inspired. Reagan can’t fire a terrible employee because becoming a mother has softened her? I’ve said before that I enjoy Up All Night as a “sitcom of lost edges,” but this idea falls flat for me. Thankfully, Tim McAuliffe’s script adds an extra dimension to that dilemma by making the terrible employee—Molly Shannon’s epically inept Nancy—a single mother.
Still, Shannon’s performance as Nancy makes the plot all the more disappointing, because she throws her all into the character. As Molly Shannon is wont to in these types of roles, her portrayal of Nancy makes the character seem like she’s going to fall to pieces at any moment—but in a way that inspires a bit of sympathy among the laughter. (So I suppose we can’t really blame Reagan for feeling bad about firing her.) She’s in way, way over her head at Ava, but doesn’t have the ability to hide it as well as Missy. And so she pratfalls around the office, unable even to take a phone call. It’s the type of performance that just makes you want to take her by the hand and lead her into a nice, quiet corner. And then fire her ass, because this is Ava, and Ava can’t send a couple dozen women suffering from alopecia to Disneyland if one of the people pulling the show’s strings can’t make the travel arrangements for just one guest.
Speaking of Missy, Jennifer Hall was as good if not better than Shannon in this episode. I like her character in extremely small doses, and when those doses can play on her anxieties like they did tonight, then she has the potential to provide some of the show’s biggest laughs. Her plant-destroying, coffee-flinging freak-outs in “Hiring And Firing” are proof that the Up All Night writers’ room knows how to write jokes—it’s just sometimes they have to write a baby into those jokes, and that complicates things.
“Hiring And Firing” forces me to ask a difficult question about Up All Night: What’s funny about this series? It’s gotten a lot of flack from some people—The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, for one—for being a comedy that doesn’t seem to know it’s a comedy, but I disagree. And it can’t be due to still-plentiful reserves of goodwill for its stars and supporting cast alone. (Guess what, Nick Cannon—your goodwill reserve is filling up! It’s still a miniscule amount, but it’s something!) The way people deal with change has a lot of potential for humor, and it’s pretty much been the favored chuckle horse in Up All Night’s laugh stable. Chris and Regan’s relationship is charming, but the kind that might be only funny if you’re also married—because there’s is very much a married relationship, a deep commitment that’s difficult to map onto scenarios that work for less legally binding romances. Like Missy, the whole of Ava is funny in controlled measures: Barry’s good for one throwaway gag per episode; Ava’s arrogance and eccentricity can float a B-plot, but she’s not quite at headliner status yet. The show also has a way with a pop-culture reference—for most episodes, the majority of the punchlines I mark down in my notes are along the lines of tonight’s Journey and Rick James allusions. And, of course, Amy is adorable, but not funny.
So I guess the answer to my question is “Some things that the show is still working to establish.” And, of those things, only the life-change material factors into “Hiring And Firing.” And even then, there’s very little interaction between Chris and Reagan, which is the risk when you give them separate storylines. The series is getting to the point where it’s running low on “Hey, go easy on it—it’s still figuring things out” chips (which will soon run out of monetary value at the chuckle-horse tracks), and with a few more episodes along the lines of “Hiring And Firing,” it’s going to get incredibly tough to watch Up All Night in place of Community on Thursday nights. It’s not like the show has suddenly taken a turn for the worse—but if it does, it might be a good excuse to buy a bunch of Starbucks and heave it angrily at the windows of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
- Yeah, I tried really hard not to mention the Community thing in the main body of the review, but hey—it still hurts. Feel free to bitch about it in the comments, but let’s please, please, please try to remember that Community hasn’t been canceled. And, hey—30 Rock’s coming back!
- Seriously, how have they not fired Barry yet? I thought his presence in “Birth” was meant to symbolize how things changed during Reagan’s maternity leave. Good to still have him around to be a complete yutz, though.
- I’m not sure how I feel about Chris saying “COME ON!” with regard to people stretching their earlobes out. On one hand: “Hooray! GOB lives!” On the other: Remember how annoying it was when Running Wilde pulled that kind of shit? I mean, right, the guy in the new sitcom that’s being given a plush spot after The Office on Thursdays needs to make constant shout-outs to a long-ago canceled, but still beloved show? COME ON!
- Is it Green Is Universal Week? Was the show’s way of acknowledging that through the car that Nancy sent back to the dealership?
- Reagan says Chris gets tongue-tied around attractive women. Chris’ response: “No I dern’t.”
- Ava has faith in the yacht she purchased from the Rick James estate: “Mark my words, the Superfreak II will prove to be a sound investment.”