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When Up All Night premiered in the fall, it had the makings of a megahit: Three hugely talented and appealing actors in a single-camera family-AND-workplace comedy produced by Lorne Michaels. Just a killer pedigree, really. Although I was disappointed by some fundamental changes made to the original pilot before its television debut, I still really appreciated the sensibility (and jokes) Up All Night had to offer and I looked forward to seeing where it would go once it came into its own. But after 21 episodes, Up All Night has barely gone anywhere. While it remains one of the brighter spots on NBC's lineup (and it frequently makes me laugh out loud), there's just something about it that prevents it from being as Must See as NBC might hope. It's regularly my last choice when I scan the DVR for something to watch (as opposed to fellow freshman comedy New Girl, which I watch ASAP). So what is it about Up All Night that works? What's holding it back?
Up All Night's strengths are many, starting with its main trio of stars. Will Arnett and Christina Applegate remain incredibly likeable (even when their characters are not—more on that in a sec), and Maya Rudolph doesn't have to do much to make me laugh. But the casting department's been working overtime at bringing in just about the best roster of guest-stars on television. Just this season we've had Molly Shannon, Jason Lee, Henry Winkler, Megan Mullally, Jorma Taccone, Blythe Danner, and Will Forte (not to mention Nick Cannon, which, where did he go?). For my money one of the funniest moments of the season involved guest-star Alanis Morissette as a member of Ava's former R&B; girl group; when Ava presides over her wedding, the two go on to reprise the "uncensored version" of one of their hits, "Back It Up (Beep Beep) On My Face," complete with every other word bleeped out. Up All Night's bleeped cursing never fails to make me laugh and it's one of the few elements that keeps this enterprise appropriately edgy.
Save for a few recurring plot threads (including Ava's failed romance with Jason Lee's character), most of the episodes are self-contained, which keeps the tone breezy and inconsequential. So while the show's storylines aren't necessarily the most compelling stuff (your mileage on Hollywood behind-the-scenes comedy may vary), Up All Night is one of the leaders in the art of hilarious throwaway moments. Whether it's Missy modeling a coin slot-exposing gown for Ava or Reagan retreating from a fight with her mother to listen to Depeche Mode in her room, Up All Night is dense with funny non sequiturs.
Basically, to answer the question of "What works?," joke-wise Up All Night is still one of TV's funniest shows.
Here's where things turn into a bit of a bummer. Strong joke-writing can only get you so far when your premise isn't the best. At some point over the course of Up All Night's 21 episodes Chris and Reagan went from unprepared, struggling-to-remain-cool parents to slightly hateful, rich jerks. The biggest target of Chris and Reagan's negativity are the perfectly nice, overachieving neighborhood couple Gene and Terry, whose inherent kindness must be the only reason they continue to put up with Reagan and Chris's overt hostilities toward them. One episode found the two families throwing a joint birthday party for their toddlers at Chris and Reagan's house and it resulted in Chris and Reagan openly judging and even shouting at Gene and Terry's relatives the entire time. It would be one thing if we were supposed to be laughing AT their meanness and how it would come back to haunt them (see: Curb Your Enthusiasm), but Up All Night seems to think we're on Chris and Reagan's side, as if to say, "Look how awful regular people are." As a Los Angeles resident, I find stories about L.A. residents to be particularly uncreative and closed-minded, and Up All Night suffers from this in a big way. Its writers room clearly thinks that wealthy entertainment industry Los Angelenos are relatable and normal. They're not, and I live here.
Entire storylines seem to be infected by this sort of L.A.-centric thinking: At one point Chris stumbled into a job as an on-air legal consultant on Ava's talk show (and ended up being a hit). First of all, wow! That happens. We should all get jobs from our talk-show host best friends. But worse, Reagan conspired to have Chris fired simply because she didn't want him hanging around in her office so much. I'm sorry, what? How is that not a divorce-able offense? At the end of the overly pat episode, Chris didn't even seem to mind. Again, a wife literally had her husband fired for no substantive reason and it was treated as not a big deal.
Also, too many of Up All Night's plotlines are resolved by spending huge amounts of money or having Ava leverage her fame in order to solve things. Need to fire an incompetent employee? Hire her as your new nanny! Want to help a guy make his ex-girlfriend jealous? Be a famous TV host and pretend to flirt with him at her place of employment! Now, I'm not saying Up All Night needs to be a reflection of everyday life, but the problem is that it presents itself that way. Whether it's the trials and tribulations of new parenthood, drama with extended family, or merely the observational humor of everyday life, these jokes won't land as hard if we're not on the same page as the characters involved. As much as I like the three main actors, I'm just not sure I want to spend more time with Chris and Reagan than I have to.
Finally, it's way too late in the season for these characters to be so ill-defined. Is Reagan a skilled workaholic producer, or an awkward, immature dweeb? Is Chris an oblivious, low-culture dude or is he a vain hunk? Is Ava a super powerful TV industry unto herself, or is she a sensitive best friend with tons of free time? Up All Night would like to say "They're both." But to that I would say, "Nice try." At this point the only believable and relatable character is Amy, but that could just be because I'm a messy eater also.
It's weird to say this, but after 21 episodes my opinion of this show isn't dramatically different from my first impression. Even with nearly a full season under its belt, Up All Night is more about potential than it is fully formed. That said, it's still one of the funniest half-hours in primetime and my season pass will remain intact. Now when's the next episode of New Girl again?
Up All Night airs Thursdays at 9:30 pm on NBC.
How do YOU think Up All Night is going so far?