Up All Night.
Will Arnett and Christina Applegate star in NBC's
Will Arnett and Christina Applegate star in NBC's Up All Night. Colleen Hayes/NBC
Will Arnett and Christina Applegate are both veterans of projects that were either good but largely unappreciated (her Samantha Who?) or weak in spite of looking great on paper (his Running Wilde). In Up All Night, NBC's solid new comedy premiering tonight, they play a married couple with a new baby alongside Maya Rudolph, who's hot off this summer's Bridesmaids.
Because Applegate's character, Reagan, is working during the days while Arnett's character, Chris, is home with the baby, the safe bet would seem to be that he'll be the hapless dad stumbling through domesticity, dropping the baby and making terrified faces at diapers while she scolds and corrects him and shows off her bloodless, sexless efficiency. That would certainly be consistent with all the depressing views of masculinity and male ineptitude on display in this fall's pilots, where men are mostly resentful, embittered doofuses who make up for their stupidity with aggression.
Instead, here, Reagan and Chris are both a bit hapless, and it's really the two of them united against the difficulties of parenting (not against the baby, because that would be gross, but against the challenges the baby presents). She spends less time being confused at the grocery store only because she's not there as much and is trying to support him over the phone — there is no implication that she's naturally any more gifted with babies or groceries than he is.
This doesn't mean they don't have conflicts — she feels like it's harder than he thinks it is to balance a day job and the baby, and he feels like it's harder than she thinks it is to be home with the baby all day. And the show leaves open the possibility that they are both right.
Rudolph's character, Reagan's boss and pal, was rejiggered between the original pilot and the final one: She began as a publicist, but now she's an Oprah-like talk-show host, which gives Rudolph (who did play Oprah on Saturday Night Live, after all) more room to play. A little of this character may wind up going a long way — in the first episode, she's almost on equal footing with Arnett and Applegate — but Rudolph is good at this kind of grande dame comedy, and if anyone can make the character work over the long term, she's the one to do it.
Like a lot of comedies, Up All Night will need some time to settle, tonally speaking. There's an assistant at the office who's being played too broadly to match up with Applegate's acting, and some of Rudolph's shtick (and I say that with affection) feels somewhat misaligned with the warmth of what Applegate and Arnett are doing.
But the couple at the center of the show is completely believable. I believed them together instantly, believed they would fall in love and stay together, and believed they loved their baby but also missed their earlier life. There are some nice moments of recognition that they have some ambivalence about parenthood (the fact that the baby is brand new and they're celebrating their seventh anniversary tells you they've waited longer than many couples do), and it's one of the only sitcoms I can remember where the parents are incredibly frustrated about parenting but transparently adore their baby. The writing is sharp, the core performances are on target, and a lot of traps are avoided.
Comedy is a very personal thing — for many critics, Fox's New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel, is the standout of the fall season. That one largely leaves me cold. This, on the other hand, while it's far from perfect, seems like a show with the capacity to be absolutely terrific. It often takes a couple of episodes for an ensemble to entirely come together, but I'm very optimistic.
NBC's Up All Night premieres tonight, Wednesday, at 10:00 p.m., after the finale of America's Got Talent. Its normal time slot will be Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m.