Change This Infant Show’s Diapers: A Review of Up All Night
- Monday, October 03, 2011
The most resilient type of television comedy is the family sitcom. Starting in the early days of television, I Love Lucy set a bar few have approached with the madcap escapades of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's classic comedy.
Within the first season, not only had American viewers swarmed to the hilarious series, but interest turned white hot when Lucille Ball announced that she was pregnant and the series wrote it into the show making babies and kids an essential attraction of the genre for decades.
Little Maggie Simpson, who, in real life would have graduated from college by now, remains permanently infantile thanks to being an animated character.
The latest comedy to involve newborns is Up All Night, starring comedy veterans Will Arnett (30 Rock, Arrested Development) and Christina Applegate (Samantha Who?, Married with Children) as Chris and Reagan, a modern couple adjusting to having their first child.
Shot single-camera style, with no studio audience, it's the kind of comedy that's less focused on the verbal gags and more on subtle, character-driven humor, at least, I think so since there aren't many funny gags. Based on the premise, I had been expecting that it would try to resonate with the common experiences of its audience, like my wife and I, who have had those long nights of sitting up with a crying infant, burping and rocking a gassy baby on your shoulder, while watching late night television.
So far, there's not been much of that on the new show; instead it's more about the couple losing the freedom to stay up late and party and come home sloshed because they're enduring the demands of child-rearing. I'm sure many audience members will relate to this experience but will other, more domesticated viewers find little to like?
In the first episode we also learn that Chris stepped down from his law practice to be a full-time dad, while Reagan is returning to her television production position, an uncommon but interesting wrinkle on the wage-earning arrangements we see on television.
But Reagan happens to work for Ava, a popular daytime talkshow host, played by Maya Rudolph as a cartoonish Oprah clone, who relies utterly on the uber-competent Reagan to maintain her emotional equilibrium. Watching Ava's self-absorbed intrusions into Reagan and Chris' life is less amusing than irritating.
Wacky supporting characters are a standard sitcom component but they shouldn't be so repellent that you cringe when they show up or at least they should be funny.
The joke of course is that Ava's adoring public loves her for her relationship and self-help advice but she's a basket case when it comes to awareness of her friends' needs and boundaries.
Arnett excels at doing strange and oddball characters; on 30 Rock, he played Devon Banks, the gay nemesis and rival of Alex Baldwin's Jack Donaghy. His long oval head, large eyes and perfect hair means he needs to play someone besides an average Everyman type which he seemed to be in the pilot, a young professional who still loved to party and surf on weekends.
But by the second episode, we see his Chris and Reagan intrigued by the new neighbors moving in across the street. Judging from appearances, they assume the new folks have retained a high coolness level, which threatens them as they see parenthood sapping their own cool quotient.
They try to insinuate themselves with the new couple to establish their hipster cred. This kind of comedy requires that the audience be able to understand such an attitude enough to find it amusing. But the new parents instead come across as pathetically needy of the approval of strangers.
What Up All Night seems to be attempting is a domestic version of 30 Rock, that insane farce about the cast and crew of a Saturday Night Live type series. Both shows are produced by Broadway Video, SNL creator Lorne Michaels' company.
But Up lacks the genius of Tina Fey that gives 30 Rock the exquisitely calibrated screwball tone which keeps its stories and characters so funny. You feel Up All Night's scripts straining to find that frequency but falling short.
As my wife and I watched the first three episodes, we'd follow each week's show with an episode or two of the classic Dick Van Dyke Show on streaming Netflix, which was to the 1960s, what I Love Lucy was to the 1950s, that decade's quintessential domestic sitcom.
In Van Dyke's new autobiography, he recounts how the show creator Carl Reiner, knowing that human nature doesn't change, sought to make the show timeless by focusing on plots and behavior any generation would recognize.
With a brilliant cast including Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore and sometimes Reiner himself, the plots were frequently inspired by domestic experiences of the cast and writers themselves and thus stayed rooted in the audience's frame of reference.
Finding the humor potential in everyday life gave the Dick Van Dyke Show its initial success and longevity with succeeding generations of viewers. Up All Night might consider adjusting its premise to bring it character back down to earth.
This might be underway already. The third episode featured Ava in meltdown mode when her ex-boyfriend announces his engagement to another woman. Ava receives a news text on her smart phone announcing this while she's shooting an interview for her show, walks off the set and begins tearing up the control room.
Reagan tries to refrain her friend and boss from doing something everyone will regret. At the same time, Chris sees Reagan come home every night with anything but amour on her mind. His clumsy efforts to get her to slip into something sexier than her old maternity clothes backfires and she angrily consigns Chris to the doghouse.
Reagan is actually feeling what many women do after childbirth, like a deflated weather balloon, anything but sexy. By the end of the episode Ava has realized she's better off without her old boyfriend and counsels Reagan to go easy on Chris. "I may not be good at relationships," Ava quietly admits to Reagan, "but I am really good at helping other people with theirs. That's why they gave me my own show."
So there's hope that allowing the characters to be more grounded will allow this new comedy to rise up.
*This article first published 10/3/2011
**Watch Up All Night Wednesdays on NBC
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