As refreshing as it is to watch a sitcom where the husband and wife aren’t constantly sniping at one another, the functionality of Chris and Reagan Brinkley’s relationship presents a big challenge to the Up All Night writers. When your characters hardly ever fight, how can you introduce enough of a conflict to power a half-hour sitcom? “Week Off” presents a gently humorous (though what isn’t gently humorous about Up All Night?) way of generating a little friction between the show’s core couple: giving Reagan a week off from Ava, thus introducing her orderly nature into the less orderly ecosystem Chris has established in his new life as a stay-at-home dad.
Of course, it’s not that plot that really sells “Week Off”—it’s the way it forces Chris and Reagan to confront who they are and what they’ve become, and the way Will Arnett and Christina Applegate bounce off one another before, during, and after that confrontation. If there’s one reason to recommend Up All Night as one of the class of 2011’s better sitcoms, it’s the chemistry between Arnett and Applegate, and “Week Off” is one the duo’s finest episodes to date. They imbue the loving aspects of Chris and Reagan’s relationship with such authenticity, and they bring the same, solid chops to representing what happens when you love someone so much that affection curdles over into a desire to change them. I’ve heard comparisons to Up All Night and The Dick Van Dyke Show based on the series’ similar workplace sitcom/domestic sitcom balance, but Arnett and Applegate are doing their damnedest to make Chris and Reagan a gender-swapped, 21st century equivalent to Laura and Rob.
Reagan’s a bit more high-strung than Rob, though—and as we see from “Week Off,” it’s incredibly hard for her to tone down that part of her personality. Reagan’s pushiness has manifested itself before, but not like in “Week Off,” where a lack of Ava-related tasks to orchestrate leaves Reagan to run her house like it’s a daytime talk show hosted by a millionaire R&B star. (Only in this version of the show, the star can shit in her pants and it’s not a big deal.) She starts small (reorganizing a junk drawer, developing a new strategy for folding laundry) then moves on to bigger things (rearranging the furniture, throwing out Chris’ cardboard cutout of NHL all-star and my personal favorite hockey player of all time, Brendan Shanahan), until the house can’t contain her impulses and she eventually ends up manicuring a neighbor’s messy lawn. It’s a pretty steep slope to slip down in the space of a few days, but I buy it, especially in the way that Applegate sells the notion that Reagan doesn’t seem like the type who ever takes it easy.
While Reagan falls into new patterns, Chris lapses into old ones. Comedy all-star and my personal favorite podcaster of all time Paul F. Tompkins makes an appearance in “Week Off” as an old lawyer associate of Chris’ who dangles the lawyerly perks of midday Scotch and giant stacks of depositions in front of Chris until the poor guy can’t help but throw together a brief on his old nemesis, Gypsum Textiles. (“Those guys cannot stop dumping shit in the Colorado River!”) We don’t know much about Chris’ time as a lawyer, but we know from “Birth” that leaving the firm was a difficult decision for him. And now that he’s enjoying his new, non-paying position just as much, he’s caught in an internal conflict between two passions. And an internally conflicted Will Arnett is always a funny Will Arnett. He’s also one who’s surprisingly adept at delivering a touching, end-of-episode monologue, one tempered with weird metaphors about lawns and identity and how there are some things that Reagan just needs to let be. Like three-time Stanley Cup champion and current NHL Vice President of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan.
Of course, none of this—nor Ava and Kevin’s personal, minor identity crises—would mean anything if this episode weren’t solidly funny. We like to tease Up All Night around these parts for being “gently humorous,” but David Iserson and Brian Rowe’s script for “Week Off” is a bit of an odd duck for the series—it’s densely and successfully packed with jokes, like Reagan’s reaction to Chris’ tall stack of legal documents (“It’s all because of this.” “Am I being subpoenaed?”) and the long-fused reveal that Matt Braunger’s character is named Gene, not Terry. (Need further proof of Arnett and Applegate’s killer chemistry? Look no further then their “Oh!” after that line.)
A lot of the funnier parts of “Week Off” are, like Ava’s nonsensical rendition of “Luck Be A Lady,” gags sprinkled between the plot points—but some arise naturally from the identity theme: Jason Lee is stranded for much of the episode, but he gets a fun running joke in Kevin’s need to assert his manliness through an affected gruffness. In a sweet parallel to the Chris-Reagan story, Ava and Kevin’s plot concludes with Ava reinforcing the positive aspects of Kevin’s handyman identity: “You are a man. You can build skyscrapers with your bare hands—now suck it up.” It might be a challenge to create conflict between Chris and Reagan, but I’m betting the Up All Night writers room has a million bizarre Ava-isms like that ready to pepper into future episodes. They should be less sparing with them in the future.
- So much midday drinking in this episode. Is this Up All Night’s subtle way of standing in solidarity with the embattled Cougar Town?
- Something that’s keeping me from giving “Week Off” a higher grade: Up All Night’s tone is usually so dry, I can’t tell if McKenna’s climactic, competent (if a bit tone deaf) take on “Luck Be A Lady” is supposed to be funny. In keeping with the wackier spirit of the episode, however, I’m reading Ava’s standing ovation as the character applauding McKenna for not wilting under the pressure and breaking into a fit of scatting.
- Because I like seeing Paul F. Tompkins on my TV screen, I’m hoping Chris keeps lawyering on the side.
- Is Reagan’s Occupy Wall Street allusion the first example of such a joke to show up in a sitcom? I’m betting that when Iserson and Rowe wrote that line, they didn’t think the various Occupy protests would still be underway.
- For all my misgivings about Ava as a character, she must be incredibly fun to write for as a joke-delivery device. And it helps that Maya Rudolph is great at reading ridiculous material like “I hate saying this about a little girl, but she’s a real butt—with two ts”
- Ava remarks on Kevin’s rough hands: “When he touches me, I feel as if I’m being sandblasted.”
- A cutaway in the YouTube video of Ava’s “Luck Be A Lady” disaster only makes the wound deeper: “Oh, God, Antonio Banderas. There’s nothing like scorn from a Golden Globe nominee”
- Reagan knows how to compliment Chris: “It was all just very Atticus Finch, honey” “I’m not kidding when I say that is the greatest thing you can say to a lawyer.” (And a father, I suppose.)