Early in the run of Up All Night, as my wife and I found ourselves looking ahead with greater anticipation to its new episodes, I was shocked to discover, during a bit of review and blog perusal, that a great many people found its leading characters to be "unlikable." The word kept popping up, in critique after critique, and I finally had to close out the browser windows and take a deep breath. It wasn't that my attachment to the show was so intense that I couldn't digest a bit of criticism. It was that, simply, one of the reasons we liked the show so much was that its protagonists seemed like us--funnier, of course, their retorts and witticisms (and on-camera appearances) given a bit of show-biz sheen, but, y'know, sort of idealized versions of ourselves. And it seemed that all of these people didn't like our spiffed-up, Hollywood avatars. You win some, you lose some.
But however you feel about Reagan and Chris Brinkley, the first-time parents played by Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, it says something about the show, their work, and their chemistry that these two absurdly attractive and remarkably amusing people seem relatable, familiar, like us. This is a show that struggled somewhat in its first season to find an overarching and consistent comedic style that worked, and sustain it. But when you've got two such charismatic and approachable actors anchoring the enterprise, those growing pains are a lot easier to forgive.
Applegate plays Reagan, a recent mom who is returning to her job as executive producer of a daytime talk show hosted by her friend Ava (Maya Rudolph). Husband Chris (Arnett) was a high-powered lawyer, but the couple decides that Reagan will return to the workplace, and Chris will be a stay-at-home dad. Some of the show's comedy comes from this basic but still rather noteworthy (for television, anyway) reversal of gender roles. Other fertile comic soil is provided by the couple's discomfort with their lifestyle change--not a dislike for being parents, but the confirmation that they are becoming, by any definition, "adults," with a child and responsibilities, creeping up on 40 and maybe not as cool as they used to be (and would like to think they still are).
Those incongruities are the show's bread and butter, and though there are supporting players of note--more on them later--Up All Night sports a surprisingly small cast, compared to most modern sitcoms. As such, an uncommon amount of pressure is placed on Applegate and Arnett to sell the relationship, and that is where creator/showrunner Emily Spivey got especially lucky, because these two are a completely credible and utterly convincing pair of marrieds. There's a coziness to their interactions, an ease and comfort in the way they relate to each other, in the casual affection they display and little jabs they get in at each other. It's not a reach to imagine they both found the characters easy to latch on to: Arnett, husband of Amy Poheler (with whom he has two children), knows a little something about having a funny, sexy wife who works in TV, while Applegate came to work on the show four months after having her first child. Read too much about their backgrounds, and you start to get the feeling that they show up on the set and just play themselves--and that's meant in the most complimentary fashion possible. They seem at home in these roles, and with each other.
Rudolph's Ava is a bit more problematic, at least early in the season. It's not that she isn't funny (is Rudolph capable of not being funny?); it's that she doesn't always seem to exist in the same universe as the rest of the show. She can do real and down to earth (and has, in Bridesmaids and Friends with Kids), but Ava is frequently written as a big, brassy, goofy character, painted with the kind of broad strokes that Rudolph used for her SNL characters. (Spivey and Rudolph worked together on that show, and even earlier than that, in LA's Groundlings comedy troupe.) Eight episodes in, they found a fix: the introduction of Kevin (Jason Lee), Reagan and Chris's neighbor, a down-to-earth, works-with-his-hands type who became a semi-regular and Ava's love interest. While their romance may have a hint of contrivance to it, it was a masterful move to ground the character by investing her in a real relationship with genuine stakes. And ironically, because we've bought in to Ava as a human being (instead of a caricature), her sillier plotlines are more believable, and her despair after she breaks up with Kevin is all the more poignant.
Jennifer Hall plays Ava's assistant, Missy, a character that manages to make her boss seem relatively sane. Hall is a gifted comedienne who seems to find her groove by zeroing in on Missy's utter looniness, and playing it dead serious. She's also the only other regular cast member, though guest stars like Megan Mullaly, Molly Shannon, Henry Winkler, Richard Schiff, Alanis Morisette, Blythe Danner (particularly good as Reagan's psychologist mother), and Stevie Nicks (as herself, of course) pop up periodically through the season to give the show a comic goose.
Up All Night's two dozen season one episodes are presented on three discs.
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image is, for the most part, clean and attractive, with good saturation and natural skin tones; there's a soft shot or two, but it's a good-looking set overall. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio isn't spectacular, but the dialogue is clear, the music cues are well modulated, and surround sound in crowd and bar scenes is subtle but present.
English SDH subtitles are also available.
Bonus features are pretty slender, at least compared to most NBC comedies; there's less than 15 minutes of material total, irritatingly spread out over all three discs.
We do get a handful of Deleted and Extended Scenes: three from "Working Late and Working It"(1:46), one from "Day After Valentine's Day" (:52), two from "New Boss" (1:05), three from "Daddy Daughter Time" (2:25), one from "Letting Go" (1:02), and two from "The Proposals" (1:57). Aside from that, the only other extra is the early-90's style "Basically" Music Video (1:43) which is amusing and short enough not to wear out its premise.
When Up All Night premiered last fall, its wry style (and Lorne Michaels connection) made it a decent fill-in for 30 Rock, whose sixth season was delayed due to Tina Fey's pregnancy. But over the course of its first year, the show became much more than an also-ran; it developed a relatable voice and fleshed out its characters, and by the sweet closing of the first season finale, I was rather surprised by how emotionally attached I'd become. Up All Night is still finding its way, and not every episode is a winner, but this is one of the most promising young comedies on the air.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.