Monday, November 7, 2011

7 Episodes In: Up All Night

(The fall TV season's new offerings are starting to hit that point where it's time to loop back around and offer second reviews of those I've kept up with. Some may have started good and stayed good and some started bad and stayed bad, but what's really interesting is shows that started bad and turned good or vice versa, in which case you can feel free to point at my original review and mock me.)

For those who don't recall: Up All Night follows the adventures of new parents Reagan (Christina Applegate) and stay-at-home dad Chris (Will Arnett). Reagan balances raising a baby and reigning in Ava (Maya Rudolph), her best friend and wacky host of the talk show she produces. Link to original pilot review.

Revised thoughts: Up All Night is the epitome of a show that achieves exactly the level of quality necessary to justify its existence and not one iota more. I don't necessarily mean that as an insult – about 80-85% of scripted television does not meet that level (over 95% if you factor in reality TV), so Up All Night is still ahead of the curve – but, as of seven episodes in, I don't feel this is a show I could really recommend someone watch with a straight face. And that's not even comparing it to top tier sitcoms like Community and Parks and Recreation, I'm talking about compared to, like, New Girl and MTV's Awkward.

I specifically waited seven episodes to re-review, because episode seven is the magic number where both 30 Rock and Community shook off any lingering new show cobwebs and put out their first unambiguously great episodes with, respectively, "Tracy Does Conan" and "Introduction to Statistics." That's enough to make episode seven my official "shit or get off the pot" mark for single camera sitcoms.

But while 30 Rock and Community used their first six half-hours to whittle their shows into lean, mean pacing machines, refine their technique, and figure out what made their characters pop, Up All Night, as far as I can come up with right now, literally hasn't solved one single problem present in the pilot. If anything, it's found itself a few new ones.

The biggest issue, as was the case in the pilot, continues to be the entire half of the show that involves Reagan producing her talk show Ava, starring her best friend of the same name. Every time Up All Night cuts from the central marriage and baby to wacky talk show hijinks, it almost always loses its distinctive flavor and instantly turns into a poor man's 30 Rock (and I don't mean a poor man's peak 30 Rock, I mean a poor man's 2011 30 Rock). Maya Rudolph's Ava, who is SO CRAZY and says WHATEVER'S ON HER MIND or even things that DON'T MAKE SENSE AT ALL, usually just comes across as Tracy Jordan with a vagina, and is rarely funny.

And on the other end of that wackiness overdose, Will Arnett's Chris grapples with the exact opposite problem. As I mentioned up top, there are instances in my pilot reviews where I'm just flat-out wrong, and my judgment of Will Arnett's understated, more or less realistic co-protagonist as being a promising new direction for Arnett's career was one of those times. Chris isn't just subtle, he's sedate and boring, which is such a shame coming from the same monumentally lively actor behind Gob Bluth and Devon Banks.

On the other hand, Christina Applegate, who made little impact on me seven episodes back, has managed to shape a reasonably charming and three-dimensional protagonist out of Reagan Brinkley. Granted, when she's at work trying to reign in Ava she positively stinks of Liz Lemon, but she has the natural comedic rhythms to make awkwardness, exasperation, and the occasional weirded-out reaction shot decently funny. I'd say most of my laughs at this point stem from Applegate's performance.

The show is also, as of this point, rather directionless. I know that the vast, vast majority of TV viewers couldn't begin to care less about that even in their dramas, let a-fucking-lone their sitcoms, but I enjoy a good narrative framework to hang a TV season on: The Office had both Jim and Pam and Dunder Mifflin's financial woes, Community had Spanish 101, 30 Rock had Liz and Jack's antagonistic relationship becoming a friendship, Parks and Rec had the pit, Arrested Development had more than I care to name, and so on. Up All Night doesn't really have anything like that. It's all somewhat boringly stuck in place. Now, maybe the show will prove me wrong and have Reagan quit Ava or something, but I'd bet money against it.

Now, everything I've written above probably comes across a little vicious – and, reading over it, even I think maybe I'm being a little too harsh – so I'll clarify that I by no means whatsoever hate Up All Night. I'm in no way bothered by anyone following it (although I'd raise an eyebrow at anyone declaring it great). The main cast all understand punchlines and comic timing, it's reasonably peppy and fast-paced, and it isn't afraid to occasionally bare comedic teeth (like the episode where one of Ava's crew members dies and she realizes she can't remember his name as she fakes her way through a eulogy).

But it still feels pretty schmaltzy and safe compared to NBC's other groundbreaking sitcoms, and, if Up All Night runs for five years and 100 episodes, it will never, ever put out a "Modern Warfare" or a "Dinner Party." I could be wrong about that, but if I am I'll deep fry and eat my own balls. I'm pretty sure I'm done following the show on any kind of regular basis, but, as it hits that "TV to leave on while you're making a meal or browsing the internet or folding clothes" sweet spot with near-perfection, I'm sure I'll see at least a handful of episodes a season for however long it runs.

What's improved since the pilot?
• Christina Applegate's performance, comic timing, and characterization.
• The addition of Jennifer Hall to the main cast.

What's stayed the same since the pilot (in a good way)?
• The pacing still moves at a fairly brisk clip.
• It's scored by Ludwig Göransson of Community fame; always a good thing.

What's stayed the same since the pilot (in a bad way)?
• It usually feels like two separate shows mashed together rather than a cohesive whole.
• Maya Rudolph continues to play like a poor man's female Tracy Jordan.
• The jokes directly involving little Amy tend to be safe, generic baby humor.

What's gotten worse since the pilot?
• Will Arnett's character has had what little edge there was sanded down and is now very dull.
• Occasional treacly, generically sitcommy endings.

New Grade: B-

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