Finally, it seems like Up All Night has figured out its game. “First Birthday” isn’t the high that last week’s “Travel Day” was, but it shows the series coming to grips with a model that really works for it. Up All Night has never been a rapid-fire one-liner factory like 30 Rock or even a comedy that seeks out the humor of total human awkwardness like the early seasons of The Office. It’s less uproarious than amusing, which leaves room for good acting and some clever writing too.
“First Birthday” hits that sweet spot nicely. There isn’t too much Chris and Reagan bickering, and the events don’t balance as precariously on Amy’s tiny toddler head as the theme suggests. Instead, the episode is a nice play on the roles that Chris and Reagan have settled into, gently questioning whether its their relationship as much as their inherent personality tendencies that pushed them into those roles in the first place.
Chris’ problem is that he’d rather say “yes” and have it be awkward later than deal with the problem in the present. It’s a time-honored strategy—who hasn’t thrown an empty invitation someone’s way to smooth over a less-than-great social interaction? But when the unbelievably annoying, androgynously named neighbor pair Gene and Terry wonder whether the Brinkleys would like to host a joint birthday party for their 1-year-olds, Chris capitulates rather than explaining why they didn’t invite Gene and Terry to Amy’s shindig in the first place. (First on the list: the enthusiasm with which Terry yelled “Taquitos!” in the last episode.) That means Reagan and Chris get stuck with the couple’s extremely large extended family instead of hosting a playgroup-only Amy party.
Then as the Brinkleys’ house is swarmed by the Gene and Terry clan, it comes to light that Chris may have sort of maybe given Ava the impression that she, and not Chris’ sister, is Amy’s godmother. This comes to light when Ava reveals her gift to her goddaughter: a terrifying portrait of Ava that makes the poor child look like some sort of Renaissance Chucky. Ava, as you might imagine, does children’s birthday parties in true Real Housewives style, wearing a silver dress than qualifies as disco casual and ordering Missy to keep the special snacks—a.k.a. sushi—away from those wearing “pleated khakis, polar performance fleece, and denim shirts with Looney Tunes on them.” Reagan then decides to take over Chris’ “good time Charlie” approach and lets Chris be the one to say “no” to people.
The good cop-bad cop reversal is a move that’s been pulled before, but I think it works well here. Reagan ignores the old man whose feet are disgustingly close to the cheese plate as Chris slowly transforms from his chilled-out self into the nitpicker of the couple, trying to provoke Reagan into action about some pretty clear party-boundary violations, like a woman doing laundry and a Hawaiian-shirted dude using the bathroom in their bedroom. Meanwhile, Molly Shannon returned as the casually foul-mouthed but fairly lovable Nancy, who asks Chris to set her up with fellow playgroup parent Ned for a “one-pump chump, a two-beat treat,” if you will. Inevitably, she later wants Chris to get post-fling Ned off her back. It all culminates nicely with Reagan donning Chris’ traditional playgroup chicken suit to replace an errant party clown and Chris going quietly insane from Gene and Terry’s insistence that everyone hold hands while they sing “Happy Birthday.”
The funny thing is that Chris doesn’t learn how to say “no”—as opposed to stewing semi-silently in his own irritation about things—until after Ava finds out about the whole godmother thing from a talking Hallmark card. The moment on the moonbounce when Chris and Reagan explain that it’s an honorary title, essentially, is a good one, a more nuanced version of the message that the two work better as a team (even with their personality quirks) than apart.
It might be less hassle to say “yes” to people, but it sure is more satisfying to say “no,” as Chris learns when he empties his house of the guests who are overstaying their welcome. Watching him toughen up is great, and Arnett’s delivery takes on more of that old Gob Bluth social antipathy than we usually see on Up All Night. “First Birthday” is a satisfying story, and the moral is this: If you’re too nice, you’ll end up with some weird dude’s feet in your Brie. Lesson learned.
- I particularly loved when Gene and Terry try to make a date for the following year, only to be met with the Brinkley’s totally serious wall of resistance. “You’re laughing but we’re saying no and it’s real.”
- “Prissy Chrissy” is clearly something Reagan had been holding in reserve for years.
- Does Molly Shannon’s appearance this week mean that she’ll be back? If so, let’s hope they give her more to do.