Near as I can tell, Up All Night was conceived as a sitcom about a thirtysomething married couple, basically domesticated but still hip, who have just had their first child and are struggling with the challenge this presents to their maintaining the identities they've gotten comfortable with. How do they embrace, as Christina Applegate puts it in tonight's episode, "being all grown up [and] making good choices," while still feeling that they're defined by their Beastie Boys references, especially in a world where "even the Beastie Boys have kids now." This may not be the deepest set of problems anybody has ever wrestled with, but it's a perfectly serviceable set-up for a comedy.
Of course, as those with really long memories may recall, the long-running '80s hit Family Ties was conceived as a sitcom about a thirtysomething married couple who had once been cool '60s hippie types and who now had to deal with a more settled existence as the middle-class parents of three kids, living and working in a changed world that seemed designed to serve as an affront to their sweet-natured utopian liberalism. Then Michael J. Fox broke out as the show's star, and the show became more and more about a quick-witted high school dreamboat with a subscription to National Review. At least there, there was a natural evolutionary line you could map out. Keaton's character shared a home with his parents, and his politics and cultural attitudes had deliberately been shaped in direct opposition to theirs; all that happened was that, as he moved to the front of the stage and they shifted to the background, he ended up with all the killer wisecracks. It wasn't exactly the show that it started out to be, but it wasn't some freakazoid mutation.
Up All Night is one of the more promising and enjoyable comedies of the new TV season. Its stars—Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph—are never less than charming, and up to this point, the show has mostly succeeded in providing them with material strong enough for them to actually be funny, so that when they're charming, it doesn't feel as if they're just begging you not to throw things at the screen. From week to week, the show remains a pretty good bet for anyone looking for a few smart chuckles. It is also a freakazoid mutation. As you may have heard, in the pilot, Rudolph was cast (as Sean O'Neal reported at this site) "as Applegate’s best friend and boss at a PR firm," but the part was subsequently changed to an Oprah-esque talk show host, with Applegate playing her indispensable first lieutenant. In terms of laughs, it was a change for the better, but it seems to have split Up All Night into two shows, the one that it's supposed to be and "The Maya Rudolph Half-A-Half-Hour Show."
Both shows have their laughs, but with each new episode, they seem to have less to do with each other. Rudolph's character's connection to the baby has shrunk to such obligatory, dumb moments such as the one tonight where she compliments her on her slimming outfit, and with each new excuse to have Rudolph barge into Applegate and Arnett's home after work hours, the seams show a little more. Tonight, Rudolph's story grew out of her discovery that she'd been included in a magazine's list of "top celebrity drop-outs," and she didn't even make the number one slot. ("I'm number eight, between H. G. Wells and Billy Joel! Who are these people!?") Horrified at the thought that people might think she was dumb, Rudolph arranged to interview an economist who'd written a new book about the financial meltdown, then discovered that she was constitutionally incapable of forcing herself to sit down and plow through the pages. The single deadest part of the whole show was the crossover section, when the two shows-within-the-show met, briefly: It turned out that Arnett had read the book and was happy to stay up with Rudolph the night before the interview, helping her cram for it. Worlds were colliding, softly and boringly.
In the cleanly segregated "Up All Night" portion of tonight's episode of Up All Night, the young parents tried to reconcile themselves to the fact that they needed to acquire some form of motor vehicle designed to accommodate their baby-toting lifestyle. It was about as familiar a plot as this set-up could spit out, but it took a happy dive into imaginative insanity when the two of them got wasted on three bottles of wine while shopping online and bought a huge van whose spacey Native American owner seemed to have driven through a portal in time that he'd entered in 1971, perhaps after taking in a double bill of Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point at the MojoWorld Amusement Park. "It's like my childhood painted a beautiful rainbow," cooed Applegate, her delivery nailing a favorite theme of this show's, which is whether hip people might mean what they're saying more than they want to let on when they're reveling in being "ironic." Behind the wheel of the thing the next morning, she had another take on the behemoth: "At least now I know what it's like to drive a haunted house."
Of the two halves of Up All Night, the Applegate-Anett show is more likely to drag but feels more solidly grounded, while the Rudolph show is wilder, but also feels a little like a parasitic life form, which it kind of is. If the show itself can't gel into one coherent thing, then it might need to expand to a full hour and then undergo mitosis, a word I was pretty sure I'd never use again after I finally passed freshman biology by the skin of my teeth. Who says a TV addiction and a college education don't go together, am I right?
- "I'm in a magazine!? Is it Stars Are Just Like Us? Am I feeding the meter or drinking out of a cup?"
- "I want to make love to you in that van so bad. And I want you to have feathered hair."
- "A tape deck! That is so perfect. As you know, a lot of the early J. Geils Band is not available on CD."
- "We're in Vegas! Ava's really procrastinating."
- "Look at this guy. He looks all mean and judgey. I'm gonna feel as dumb as I did in my sad high school days on the Florida panhandle, wearing my mannish cousin's hand-me-down overalls." "We all know the back story."