Is there a rule of thumb when judging a comedy based on its pilot? We know that three of the best sitcoms on television right now had middling to bad pilots: “Parks and Recreation” (middling, same for the entire first season); “30 Rock” (middling, at best, and it didn’t find its legs until midway through the first season) and “The Office” (awful, but it began to turn it around as soon as the second episode). One of the few great pilots for currently running sitcoms was “Modern Family” and it managed to hang on to its solid sense of humor for a season and a half before it began to show signs of fatigue.
In terms of quality, “Up All Night” lands somewhere between the “30 Rock” and the “Modern Family” pilots: Good, but not great. But I think it’s going to succeed ultimately on the basis of the talent involved, a generic premise with a lot of wiggle room, and a creator/writer in Emily Spivey who came from “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” and — as a career-first woman who had children late — obviously knows the terrain.
Christina Applegate and Will Arnett (minus the arrogant boisterousness) star as Reagan and Chris, late 30s parents with high-pressure careers who are used to lives of so many married without children parents I know: Long hours, a carefree existence with a lot of vacations and alcohol, and ample disposable income. Applegate and Arnett nail that aspect of the show from the beginning. Like so many older parents who have eschewed kids and gently mocked the troubles of their child-rearing friends, they’re bewildered by how “f*%king beautiful” an infant can be, as well as the daily shock of having to rearrange their lives around the pooping blob that’s taken up residence in their home. There is a scene midway through the pilot that most new parents can readily identify with: The battle of who slept less, where Reagan and Chris argue about who had the least amount of sleep and who thus should have to tend to the baby (an ongoing argument in my house four years in). And there’s yet another identifiable moment where Chris is celebrating the fact that he found a similarly situated Dad and the slow friend courtship that ensues.
It’s the new parent moments where “Up All Night” is at its strongest, particularly in the the parenting insecurities and the daily quibbles and resentments that Chris — who quit his job in a law firm — has with Reagan, who maintained her high-powered position in entertainment. Arnett suits that role perfectly; he’s a neutered version of his “Arrested Development” character, and like a lot of Dads in that situation, feels emasculated by the stay-at-home Dad part, even if it’s one he chose for himself.
The other half of “Up All Night” — mom’s workplace difficulties— hasn’t yet gelled with the parenting half. It’s uneven, and aims more for sitcom yuks than it does identifiable humor. Reagan plays the close friend and assistant to Maya Rudolph’s Ava, a demanding and oblivious “Oprah-esque” talk show host who wants to pretend as though becoming a mother hasn’t changed Reagan’s life. In the pilot episode, Spivey relies too much on Rudolph’s “SNL” shtick — singing voices and diva-like caricatures — and less on the strengths of Rudolph: Her abilities as the droll straight-man as demonstrated in Bridesmaids and Away We Go. Some of the unevenness might be attributed to the late decision to beef up Maya Rudolph’s role (and change her job) in the wake of the successful Bridesmaids, so there’s reason to hope that Ava will eventually become a more sympathetic friend instead of an “SNL” skit that loses its momentum halfway through.
It’s definitely a comedy that displays a lot of potential. Applegate has bounced around since “Married with … Children” as the sole strength in a series of mediocre to bad sitcoms, and “Up All Night” is easily the best television role she’s had since Kelly Bundy. Save for a recurring role on “30 Rock,” Arnett has been television poison since “Arrested Development” ended its run, but in “Up All Night” he finally gets to play a character with whom we can identify and relate instead of an obnoxious loudmouth. Maya Rudolph is likewise a brilliant actress too often misused. If Spivey can do for her character they did with Amy Poehler’s in “Parks and Recreation” — make her someone to root for instead of someone to laugh at — then it’s very possible that “Up All Night” will settle into one of the stronger sitcoms on network television.