Much of what’s been written about Up All Night (my reviews included) has revolved around the question of “what to do with Ava.” It’s a refrain (“How do you solve a problem like Ava?” sings an imaginary chorus of TV critics and online commentators in nun’s habits) that has as much negative intent behind it as positive; occasionally, the tone is such as to suggest Ava should be done away with before anything else is done with her. But that’d unfair to Maya Rudolph, a talented comedic actress who, despite a few go-to tics and gimmicks, deserves the time in the spotlight Up All Night affords her. Ava’s the one who needs work, the one who needs to avoid lapsing into a walking, shouting caricature. So how do you catch that cloud and pin it down? Try giving it real, relatable wants and desires, as “Mr. Bob’s Toddler Kaleidoscope” does.
As much as Up All Night has been about Chris and Reagan’s relationship and the way it’s being redefined by parenthood, the show is also about the bond between Reagan and Ava. Pushing that concept so much so soon makes Up All Night feel occasionally cluttered and unfocused, but episodes like “Mr. Bob’s Toddler Kaleidoscope” (It gets more fun every time you type it!) and “Working Late And Working It” do the legwork to show the dynamic of Reagan’s second-most-important relationship—and how it’s mostly beneficial to Ava. Of course, that’s how a lot of main character-main character’s pesky friend relationships function—think Kramer and Newman, Theo and Cockroach, or DJ Tanner and Kimmy Gibler. Reagan is Ava’s rock, the only one that can talk her down from a tantrum or write her a speech for a benefit event in her limited spare time. We don’t know a whole lot about Ava as a person, but we know one thing: She needs Reagan.
So here’s another thing to do with Ava: Show why she means so much to Reagan. Because spending time with your infant daughter in lieu of seeing Manic Manday—an all-transvestite tribute to The Bangles, natch—or attending a Zac Posen event with your best friends is totally understandable. And it’s totally understandable that Ava would be put out by Reagan’s decisions to do so. But steady employment and a standing, annual date to see men in dresses play “Walk Like An Egyptian” do not a fully realized friendship make. It’s almost too easy for Reagan to be mad at Ava after she leaves the gig early—from what we’ve seen, she doesn’t get a whole lot of fulfillment from a happy Ava. The expressions of Reagan’s devotion are there, but we’re missing a whole lot of answers to the question “Why?”
While the episode keeps Reagan and Ava’s conflict at a low, “faux Wild West showdown” simmer, Reagan nearly comes to blows with one of the other moms at the episode’s titular toddler kaleidoscope, a Gymboree-esque early-childhood activity center ruled by the steady hand of Michael Hitchcock (in a role that requires him to going only 75 percent apeshit for once). That mom is played by the episode’s other guest star, Missi Pyle, who’s in proud, competitive, “Mrs. Beauregarde from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” mode here. It’s a sign of Reagan’s shifting priorities that she’d rather show off her mothering bona fides than attend an event held by her favorite fashion designer, and Pyle stokes the fire of their competition in fine style. To make the conflict a little more believable, the script wisely opts to give Pyle’s character some of Ava’s least admirable qualities: unearned pride, boastfulness, and general arrogance. It’s a miracle that the confrontation that leads to Reagan’s dismissal from Mr. Bob’s doesn’t end with Pyle’s face morphing into Rudolph’s. But that’s the kind of out-there gag that isn’t in Up All Night’s vocabulary. It’s still a show where moms defeated by a common enemy—that menacing pop-up stroller from last week—can come together to stomp the shit out of that enemy, though.
It’s also a show where the male lead can convincingly become captivated by a polo-shirted guru of indoor parachutes and nursery-rhyme choreography. One of the funnier aspects of Chris’ character is how quickly he clings to any male role model that floats into his periphery—first Will Forte’s Reed, now Hitchcock’s Mr. Bob. That obviously has a lot to do with the fact that Chris isn’t getting out of the house much, but he’s also in need of some self-definition beyond his fatherly duties. (It can’t help that everyone at Mr. Bob’s refers to him as “Amy’s dad.”) In “Mr. Bob’s Toddler Kaleidoscope” (still fun!) that comes from applying his skills with Amy to his skills with other people’s kids. We get to glimpse Chris’ “now the student has become the teacher” moment, but like Ava’s speech at the Posen event, we’re left to fill in the onscreen blanks. We can only go on Chris’ word that he’s a natural with the kids, because when he steps in for Mr. Bob, he’s cut off fairly quickly by Reagan’s tiff with Pyle’s character. It doesn’t necessarily help the joke of his parachute wizardry land—and I don’t think that sequence would be any funnier if he was terrible with the parachute—but that whole scene is a great illustration of how artfully Up All Night is reinforcing character traits at this early stage. The echoes of Chris’ past plots ring more as character development than easy, repeated gags. If there’s anything this show continues to have a handle on, it’s the leads—now the show’s third wheel just needs some increased definition, from without as well as within.
- Manic Mandays previously performed as The Dangles. On a related note, it can’t be a coincidence that this episode aired a few weeks after The Bangles released a new record, right? In lieu of the band’s recent resurgence (Say, have you read Will Harris’ excellent Set List with Susanna Hoffs?), what all-female band would’ve replaced the sweethearts of the Paisley Underground? My bet is The Go-Go’s, but only because I’d want Up All Night’s transvestite cover band to go under the name I just thought up: Beauty And The Meat. (Runner-up: Our Dicks Are Concealed.)
- I laughed really loudly when Missy revealed that Reagan wrote Ava’s speech—because I thought that meant she plagiarized a Ronald Reagan address. Sometimes I just forget the names of characters in the middle of an episode.
- Reagan on Pyle’s character: “Who is she to judge me? Ruth Bader Ginsburg?”
- Missy on Ava’s typical speechwriting arrangement: “Yes, Reagan writes them because she’s talented and knows… words.”
- Chris reacts to Reagan’s amended “Itsy Bitsy Spider”: “Mr. Bob doesn’t like it a whole lot when parents go off-book.”