It was inevitable that Up All Night would eventually introduce Amy’s grandparents in an effort to throw Reagan and Chris’ parenting style into sharp relief and/or give us added insight into the neuroses they picked up from mom and dad. That fact was made all the more inevitable when the news broke that Blythe Danner, Hollywood’s premier choice for distinguished comedic matriarchs with an icy edge, would play Reagan’s mother. It was not inevitable, however, that the episode introducing Danner and Richard Schiff as the renowned psychiatrists who brought Christina Applegate’s character into this world—and could take her out of it with a line of incisive, scoping inquiry—would focus so squarely on death.
Expected, maybe, but not inevitable. After all, Up All Night is the show which had one of its lead characters approach the birth of her daughter by belting a few lines of “Lightning Crashes.” It’s a sitcom with a latent somber streak, so it’s not a surprise that “Parents” moves the conversation to the end of life after “Birth” focused so squarely on the beginning of it. It’s a bold move, and it helps the episode avoid the hack-y “Oh my God, we’re turning into our parents” beats that Danner and Schiff’s arrival heralded.
It doesn’t hurt that the theme is introduced in funny manner: In the cold open, Chris discovers that his lifetime subscription to Sports Illustrated expires in 2032. By his logic and the cruel prognosticating of the “most recognized periodical of American sports” (which, it should be noted, was conceived by a publishing giant with “Time” in its name—one which also put out a publication called Life), this means Chris only has 21 years to live. The irrefutable proof of SI’s prophecy is delivered by one of those online “death clocks,” which throws Chris into a spiraling existential crisis. Now, I’m more of fan of Chris when he’s not a complete idiot, but I loved this plot. If only because Will Arnett is so good at playing someone facing the big questions—and coming up with no better answer than “Panic!”
The crisis leads to Chris finding a way to bond with his father-in-law (more on that below), but it also, somewhat amazingly, both organically feeds and is fed by the goings on at Ava. “Parents” eschews the images of human sacrifice, mass hysteria, and dogs and cats living together that this anomaly implies, and instead rides out a subplot where the death of a crewmember forces Ava to admit that she doesn’t know most of her staff by face. Or name. It hardly distracts from the main story, and it builds to a killer joke, where Ava’s lack of appreciation for her soundman Dale while he was among the living leads to an embarrassingly sparse PowerPoint tribute to the man. It’s just a group photo (run through various zoom and pan effects), Dale’s W4 (which gets a similar treatment), and a biographical ode from Ava—the lyrics of which are pulled mostly from Dale’s W4. Also, it opens with the word “Dale” in Comic Sans, the Missy of typefaces. Suffice it to say, it’s the funniest use of slideshow software since Parks And Recreation laid Li’l Sebastian to rest. I’m completely fine with the Ava scenes being wackier than the rest of Up All Night so long as they can take more thematic left turns like this. Let the people you love know that you appreciate them while they’re still alive, kids—otherwise, you’re going to end up looking like a terrible person on national television. It’ll be funny, but you’ll still look like a dick.
The Dale business echoes the emotional core of the scenes between Amy and her parents—particularly her mother, who’s apparently used her daughter as the jumping-off point in all her research into the psychology of mother-daughter relationships. (She did spend some time studying cannibalistic infanticide in gerbils—but you don’t want to hear about that…) But for all the unorthodox material surrounding them, Reagan’s issues with her mother come to a way too facile conclusion. Sure, that conclusion involves her regressing into the same type of behavior she apparently exhibited as a sullen teen with “MEAT IS MURDER” scrawled across her cropped sweatshirt (a tantrum soundtracked by Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” natch), but for Danner to go from talking about naming Amy’s vagina to exhibiting her cuddly grandma instincts doesn’t feel earned. Reagan wouldn’t have turned out as together as she is if her mom only saw her as a test subject, but to resolve their conflict this early effectively defangs Danner and Schiff’s characters for the remainder of the series. Angie and Dean aren’t exactly leading candidates for a place in the Frank And Estelle Costanza Memorial Sitcom Parent Hall Of Fame, but they’re much more interesting if they have a little edge. (Though, to Chris’ frustration, Dean manages to stay somewhat threatening.) But hey, you have to end a sitcom episode on a happy note, right—even the ones that are somewhat death-obsessed. And thus Angie is appreciated!
That’s too bad, because as much as Danner is sleepwalking through the part she’s been handed again and again since Meet The Parents, Schiff is a lot of fun as Dean. He’s the ears of their two-person brain team, the guy who hears every layer of a conversation and wants to explore every possible subtext. This makes him Chris’ perfect foil (and temporary ally) in “Parents,” as Chris’ death-watch behavior sends off all sorts of signals to which his father-in-law can’t resist responding. The way this instinct kicks in is both well-written and well-acted, and Schiff gets plenty of mileage out of simply clicking into professional mode. Ultimately, however, he has more questions than answers—appropriate, then, the question that finally gets Chris to open up is “What?”
Most importantly, however, is how Angie and Dean’s introduction fortifies the bond between Reagan and Chris. Reagan grew up in a severe household, so a husband who sees his eventual demise in the cover of Sports Illustrated is probably just what she needed. And he needs someone who isn’t as afraid to stare down the death clock as he is. Fortunately, according to its calculations, they’re going to be together for the rest of their lives—give or take a couple days.
- Smart demographic-courting: The advertisements for NBC’s Thursday-night comedies aired during “Parents” omit Whitney from the lineup. Or maybe someone figured Up All Night viewers are already familiar with Whitney, thanks to the reruns that have slammed into the show in the wake of Free Agents’ demise.
- Chris is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, apparently. Did anyone catch the name or number on the back of his Leafs T-shirt?
- Given the “naming your child’s genitals” exchange indicates that the “fall of vagina jokes” isn’t limited to the post-pubescent.
- It would’ve been a nice callback, but I’m really glad the title track from The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder wasn’t used during the tantrum scene. Way to ruin an otherwise great album, Morrissey’s activist impulses.
- 2032 is also likely to be the year Danner’s real-life daughter Gwyneth Paltrow takes her rightful place in the Hollywood pantheon and starts taking these Angie-type roles.
- The biggest laugh of the night comes when Missy’s slideshow lingers way too long on Dale’s Social Security Number. Did anyone manage to write it down? And, if so, to what address can we start billing fraudulent charges?
- Chris and Dean start their game of questions: “Living the dream!” “Tell me about this dream.”
- Ava tries to find some words to describe her departed soundman: “Passionate, prompt, sound-obsessed, passionate about sound.”
- Reagan prompts Chris for some sound effects to make it appear that she’s talking to her parents from Las Vegas: “Slot machines!”
- Ava has read Angie’s book: “I call my lady garden Janine.”
- Like mother, like daughter: “Are you drunk?” “Yes. Are you drunk?” “Yes.”
- Sulky Reagan: “Nobody understands me.” Forthright Chris: “Maybe it’s because your face is in a pillow.” (It’s all about Arnett’s delivery on this one. If he didn’t play it as dry as he does, it’d just be a lame throwaway.)