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Newborn ‘Up All Night’ formulaic but promising

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

September 23, 2011

Newborn babies are rife with comedic possibilities. Don’t believe me? Just think about the many TV shows and films that have gotten laughs at the expense of messy diapers and frazzled parents. Granted, many of them aren’t actually worth watching, but the new NBC sitcom “Up All Night,” which explores similar territory, actually manages to be kind of good, thanks in part to a stellar cast.

Christina Applegate and Will Arnett star as Reagan and Chris Brinkley, a couple who’ve just had their first baby together. Chris, a lawyer, chooses to stay at home with their newborn Amy, while Reagan returns to her job as a producer for a talk show starring her flighty friend Ava (Maya Rudolph).

The first episode covers pretty standard fare: With Chris at home and Reagan at work, conflict arises when they can’t find time for their anniversary celebration; craziness ensues when they subsequently decide to party with Ava.

The second episode, meanwhile, delves a little more deeply into the couple’s anxieties over parenthood when a hip, slightly androgynous couple moves in next door. Can parents engage in a fulfilling social life or are they condemned to remain in the margins of society?

Unsurprisingly, the show’s best asset are its three, uniformly good leads.

Since the show focuses equally on Reagan’s home and work life, Applegate—best known for her roles in “Married… with Children” and “Samantha Who?”—receives the most screentime and she makes great use of it. Her Reagan is down-to-earth and even a bit mellow by sitcom standards.

Arnett also does a great job as a first-time dad. He’s been consistently stellar in all his projects, including his regular role as the self-obsessed magician GOB on “Arrested Development” and his guest stints as comically maniacal Devon Banks on “30 Rock.”

His Chris is very different from his previous parts; while Arnett has created a string of over-the-top quasi-caricatures, Chris is much more level-headed and intelligent, albeit painfully insecure at times.

Rudolph, the star of an impressive array of “Saturday Night Live” sketches and this summer’s “Bridesmaids,” turns in typically strong work as spacey Ava but, whereas Reagan and Chris almost feel like real people, her Ava never feels like anything less than a TV character. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but Ava needs to be sketched out in future episodes.

While the cast is strong, “Up All Night” feels disjointed as a result of its uneasy, bifurcated set-up.

The show’s strongest scenes are easily those set at the Brinkley household. Applegate and Arnett have an easy chemistry, allowing their relationship to feel real and lived-in; you can see them as actually having been married for seven years.

With a premise so focused on parenthood, I worried that the show would try too hard to work the couple’s newborn into every story. The second episode allayed those fears, as the baby took a backseat to Reagan and Chris’ personal insecurities. Still, with only two lead characters, it seems likely that the show would quickly run out of fresh material if it focused solely on their home life, which is probably why they also incorporated Reagan’s work life into the show.

Unfortunately, the segments focused on Reagan’s work aren’t nearly as funny as the rest of the show. In fact, these parts feel like a cheap “30 Rock” knock-off, with Rudolph’s Ava serving as a stand-in for Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney. Alas, Ava is nowhere near as funny as Jenna, partially because she’s nowhere near as crazy.

Occasionally, Ava does get some good lines. When Chris arrives on the set, she looks at him cautiously and asks him if her dress “makes [her] look too thin”; later, when baby Amy rejects Ava’s attempts at kindness, she wonders aloud if “this baby has never been around a person of color before.” Still, these lines are pretty weak compared to the genius “30 Rock” has to offer, and it seems like the writers think Ava is loopier than she actually is.

To amp up the show-within-a-show aspect, Ava has been given two minions: Calvin (Nick Cannon), Ava’s sidekick on the show, and Missy (Jennifer Hall), Ava’s hapless assistant. Neither provides any real laughs and both feel unnecessary.

Still, the show’s much funnier than you would have expected based on the premise alone. Considering I was expecting tired jokes about baby weight and poop, I was pleasantly surprised by how well-executed the show is as a whole. The show suffers from a few kinks and needs to remedy its unevenness, but there’s certainly a lot of potential. At any rate, Arnett and Applegate will make watching a few more episodes worthwhile.

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