I’ll be honest: I was deterred by Up All Night’s premise. We’ve seen young couples adjusting to parental life before, and it’s the sort of thing that can sometimes pass for “cute” and “sweet.” Maybe it’s the sort of thing that new parents can watch and relate to, but rarely the sort of thing that is fuel for genuine laughter. And although it’s got Lorne Michaels behind it, and Will Arnett center stage, I didn’t get my hopes up. But Up All Night has proven that I’ve become way too cynical. NBC recently picked up the comedy starring Arnett and Christina Applegate for a full season order, and it is officially my favorite new show of the fall season.
The series actually did itself a disservice with all the baby-centric promos. I imagine it was trying to rope in an audience of young parents with its relatable subject matter. But in doing so, the series painted itself as the kind of show where most of the humor is derived from the new baby spitting up on her parents — don’t say that’s not something shows have relied on in the past. Instead, Up All Night has remarkably quick-witted dialogue from each of its three principal players (the third being Maya Rudolph, who plays Applegate’s boss and best friend), and problems not limited in interest to those in the same walk of life as main characters Chris and Reagan. In fact, if one had to pinpoint what the show is really about, it’s not dealing with the literal stresses of parenthood. It’s a desperate fear of aging—and that is something that many of us can understand to some degree.
Chris and Reagan are illustrated as two former partiers who took pride in their adventurous lifestyle; although they are not entirely capable of accepting this, their lives have changed. Reagan is a workaholic producer of a talk show, and Chris is a stay-at-home dad. And although both are incredibly devoted to one another and to their daughter Amy, they consistently show signs of nostalgia for their wilder days.
It is this balance of their good intentions (and general success as parents) and inherent flaws that make the show terrific. “Perfect families” are more or less a thing of television past. “Corrupt” characters work well in many instances, but would be hard to watch and root for if a baby was involved. The creators of Up All Night found a great balance in Chris and Reagan, who are a little bit selfish and immature at times, but who are generally good people and good parents.
And, in case they are too grounded for you, there is Rudolph’s Ava, who is the show’s lovable basketcase. Through her insecurities and her constant need to be loved, she makes Reagan’s life worlds more difficult than it has to be.
Despite their yearning for youth, Chris and Reagan are also comically obsessed with being seen as good parents. Last night’s episode showcased all of the show’s main themes, and very humorously so. Chris strives desperately to be the “best parent” at a baby playgroup led by the insufferable, but sort of ingenious, Mr. Bob (Michael Hitchcock). Reagan resents her inability to stay out late with Ava for a Bangles cover band concert, just like old times. And Ava becomes bitter and irrational as a result of Reagan’s newfound maturity.
The plotlines are not ones we’ve never seen before—they’re simple and familiar. But the talent on this show is the biggest sell. Anyone who has seen Arnett in anything knows he can steal a scene from the best of them. He softens up his ‘slimy jerk’ archetype just enough to be likeable as a dad, but still maintains some remnants of the flawed jackass he plays so well. Applegate is moreover the straight woman, but that doesn’t mean her deadpan reactions to the madness around her aren’t great for laughs. And Rudolph plays crazy like a legend.
To sum up, the show has the rapid fire wit of 30 Rock with the authentic characters of earlier 30 Rock. Don’t let the “new parents” theme deter you—Up All Night’s premise is a bonus for new parents, yes, but as a whole it’s so much more than that. It’s about growing up: balancing youth and maturity, work and family, yourself and those around you. It’s a sophisticated show, but is not above silly humor. All in all, it’s a big win.