This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Erik Adams, who will be reviewing the series week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff look at Up All Night.
Up All Night debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern, following the finale of America's Got Talent. The show will begin airing in its regular timeslot, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern, next week.
Erik: The good thing about the Up All Night pilot: Despite some last-minute edits and rewrites, it’s still one of the funniest pilots of the new fall season. Its premise was simple and straightforward enough to adapt to the tweaks: Career-driven husband and wife Chris and Reagan Brinkley (Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) have a baby and thus try to find the balance between their old, wild-and-crazy life and the new one where they’re responsible for a tiny, defenseless human being. It’s a tried-and-tested logline and one that occurs to most comedic minds when they reach a certain age. This being an era where Louis C.K. calls his 4-year-old an “asshole” and Patton Oswalt fantasizes about having an invisible kid named “10 Hours Sleep A Night,” showrunner Emily Spivey does well not to mine the saccharine elements of parenthood. She makes Up All Night’s intentions apparent from the moment that Arnett and Applegate can’t bring themselves to quit cursing in front of lil’ Amy.
But Arnett and Applegate didn’t factor heavily into the edits and rewrites; it was their co-star Maya Rudolph who, thanks to the success of Bridesmaids, received a tremendous bump in her Up All Night profile. As if to underline this change, Rudolph’s character has gone from high-powered PR exec to Oprah Winfrey surrogate. (If the opening to her character’s eponymous talk show, Ava, is any indication, she’s also got a little bit of the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in her.) Thankfully, that promotion is hardly noticeable in the version of the pilot that airs tonight, as the behind-the-scenes sequences at the Ava offices fit seamlessly with the scenes of Chris and Reagan at home. If you didn’t see the original cut, you’d hardly know it existed. Ava was an over-the-top character to begin with, and her funniest line of the episode—where she slyly reveals that she just came from a date on a helicopter, like it’s no big deal—is featured in both versions. But now, it’s more likely that Ava owns the helicopter.
The bad thing about the Up All Night pilot: The “new” Ava is one of the elements of the pilot that work, but there are objects in her orbit that could easily destroy that effectiveness. For instance, notice the specter of Nick Cannon, confined here to less than 10 seconds of screen time where he nonetheless manages to squeeze in a whole episode’s worth of mugging. Sure, he’s being set up as Ava’s grating court jester/laptop DJ, but I don’t trust the crowd-pleaser in Cannon to quiet down when he’s not rocking the Ava audience. There’s also the matter of the show’s staff undergoing a “cleanse,” a subplot that, despite forcing Applegate to say the phrase “wicked hot sting ring,” won’t hook any skeptical viewers expecting Up All Night to be nothing but diaper jokes.
Those elements wouldn’t be so troublesome if the show’s core weren’t so strong. Spivey’s script makes Arnett and Applegate’s husband-wife interactions feel wholly authentic. It takes touches that might seem cutesy elsewhere—Chris and Reagan referring to their upcoming anniversary celebration as “anniversary times,” or Reagan knowing something’s wrong with Chris because he’s donning his trusty Panama Jack T-shirt—and makes them selling points for the series. There’s a sense of who these people were before they had a baby and who they were before they even met. And we get to see how they complement one another: When Chris calls Reagan from the grocery store, freaked out because he can’t remember where they keep the cheese, Reagan talks him down; later, as Reagan spirals into a theoretical nightmare of bad parenting, Chris repays the favor. It’s a pleasant dynamic that’s occasionally utilized by two of ABC's new sitcoms for the fall; too bad Last Man Standing and Man Up! are lying in wait to bludgeon that trend with a rock in October.
None of that would hold up if there wasn’t also some palpable chemistry between Up All Night’s leads, and Arnett and Applegate's individual performances in the pilot are good as well. From jumping between Amy and an adoring grandmother type to his delivery of the line “When did grocery stores get so big?” Arnett’s panic in the grocery store is pitch perfect. It’s great to see him playing a character who’s not a complete cad, and it’s equally great to see Applegate as a woman with maternal instincts who doesn’t quite know how to apply them. The pilot lays the groundwork for her realization that she should probably apply said instincts at home as often as she does at work, but it should be fun to watch Applegate make that transition—and hear whatever other terrifying visions of her chain-smoking, nursing-home future fall out of her brain.
Oh hey, also: There’s a baby in this. But it isn’t hogging the spotlight, and Applegate and Arnett pull some big laughs when the indulgence of their past habits is interrupted by a blast from the baby monitor the next morning. That’s another well-balanced element of the pilot that the writing staff should maintain—provided they don’t stumble upon a cast of characters that’s far more interesting than any “new parent” plots, à la Raising Hope. Considering that would require a hefty initial dose of Cannon’s DJ character, here’s hoping the next few episodes of Up All Night look more like this, Spivey and company’s second take at first-time parenthood.
Stray observations (with very mild spoilers):
- I’m also worried about the broader strokes of Jennifer Hall’s portrayal of Ava staffer Missy, who marks Reagan’s first day back in the office by kissing her full on the lips. There’s nothing jarring in the transitions between home and office in the pilot, but it’s almost like Ava might transform into a bizarre, cartoony alternative universe to relatively grounded happenings at the Brinkley’s.
- What’s the over-under on us never seeing Chris’ new “surfer dude” friend? When was the last time there was an unseen character in a prime-time sitcom? Google indicates Wolowitz’s mother on The Big Bang Theory.
- Big block of cheese = instant visual-gag gold. Unfortunately, the equally funny sight of Chris’ aborted attempt at folding Amy’s ridiculously tiny socks didn’t make the cut on the retooled pilot.
- Spivey is a former Saturday Night Live writer who also wrote the “Eagleton” episode of Parks And Recreation; Up All Night is executive-produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels, who hopefully will extend his 30 Rock and Portlandia winning streak with this series. (Unfortunately, NBC has chosen to use Up All Night and Free Agents to stake out some comedy territory on Wednesday nights, pitting them against a strong lineup on ABC.)
- “Babe, worry—I can’t totally do this”
- “I know about your paralyzing fear of birds.”
- “Cheese guy says we’re going to need a rinder.”
- “I think Matt Lauer’s talking to me through the TV.”
- “You know who’s not hungover—that baby!”
Todd: The pilot for Up All Night isn’t very funny, especially given the people working on it, but it’s often well-observed. There are few belly laughs to be had, but there are certainly wry smiles earned by the writing and performances. For example: The business about being a new parent and having to adjust your life to do so is nicely handled, and while it’s not drop-dead hilarious, it is amusing and pleasant enough. Spivey’s a good writer, and with this many funny people involved, it’s worth giving them a little time to find the version of the show that works best, instead of the somewhat strained version that exists in the pilot.
The problem comes from the fact that Up All Night is, essentially, two shows in one. The smaller, quieter show is a family comedy about two people who find that having a baby changes everything. (NBC, of course, has scheduled this show directly opposite ABC’s popular family comedy night, which doesn’t bode well for the ratings.) The louder, brasher workplace comedy has more of the big laughs, but it also feels much more like a copy of many other shows on the air. The baby stuff has a point-of-view; the talk show stuff occasionally feels like a community theatre production of 30 Rock. (Rudolph seems at sea, as well, which is a problem.) It’s not bad, but it’s not really good either. Managing that balance will be tricky, but if any team can pull it off, it’s this one.