It isn’t terribly damning criticism to say that the pilot episode of Up All Night is a bit uneven. At first, the pacing is a bit off, some of the jokes nod a little too conspicuously toward its stars’ original successes, and, with its heavy reliance on extended set pieces, it’s a little difficult to determine what the show’s actually about after a half hour. That said, in the second half of the episode, those stars (Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph) really seem to get their game back, and, for about 10 minutes, Up All Night looks like a real contender.
The premise of the show—established within the first 20 or 30 seconds—is this: Reagan (Applegate) and Chris (Arnett) are a hard-partying, foul-mouthed power couple who find themselves unintentionally with child. About 45 seconds later, the baby has appeared, Chris has quit his job to become a full-time Mr. Mom, and Reagan is going back to work as a harried producer for Oprah-meets-Tyra daytime talk show titan Ava (Maya Rudolph). Things hurtle apart predictably as Chris adjusts to his new domestic responsibilities, Reagan gets back into the swing of being the Liz Lemon of a Girlie Show lookalike, and the childless diva Ava tries to act like it’s old times.
In this sense, the show is a slight upgrade of a couple of different boiler plates from Murphy Brown to Knocked Up, but presumably no one should tune into Up All Night expecting the kind of narrative innovation that gave Arnett his big break on Arrested Development. It’s really all about whether or not showrunner Emily Spivey can create characters that go beyond Tracy Jordan-style crazies, Lemon-style career-jugglers, and, well, Gob Bluth-style buffoons. The writers and producers at Spivey’s alma mater, Parks and Recreation, have done an improbably good job turning a collection of character concepts into a group of hilariously funny but genuinely relatable human beings. And while the Up All Night pilot rests comfortably on big doses of 30 Rock absurdism, it’s clear from a few moments, among them a staggeringly funny and well-played diaper-changing scene shot like B roll from Black Hawk Down, that the show is aiming for the same level of sentimental and optimistic humanism we’ve been reintroduced to by Amy Poehler and company.
The rest of the burden falls squarely on Applegate, Arnett, and Rudolph to pull it all off, and they seem to be more than capable. Applegate is one of America’s most appealing comedic actresses, and, from her recent valiant attempt to keep ABC’s Samantha Who? afloat, to her scene-stealing supporting role in the better-than-you’d-think Drew Barrymore vehicle Going the Distance, it’s not difficult to imagine a world in which Applegate’s career isn’t so different from Barrymore’s. She delivers Up All Night‘s most self-assured performance (despite Arnett and Rudolph’s cult status, Applegate is the real TV star here), but it helps that she doesn’t have to do it alone. Arnett relies on his patented idiot rakishness for much of the pilot, but he also pulls off a few of the best one-liners, especially during the diaper-changing scene and a surreal incident inside a supermarket. The actor looks pretty good playing a character that even somewhat resembles an actual person. Rudolph is similarly reliable: Much of the pilot was rewritten and reshot a few months ago to give her a meatier role, and this episode shows the former SNL star making use of the extra material. Her performance occasionally recalls her Oprah impersonation, but by the time she’s singing Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen” a cappella at the end of the episode, the actress has moved beyond mimicry and into a weirder and more promising direction.
Every season, hopes are high for new pilots struggling to break through, starring likable actors who seem perennially stuck in the shadow of their past successes. This season, a lot of pilots that might have otherwise gone to struggling television stalwarts have been cast with high-quality, low-celebrity movie actors—Maria Bello, Jim Caviezel, Patrick Wilson, Zooey Deschanel—seeking to take advantage of the post-HBO TV gold rush. In that context, Up All Night is a kind of classical sitcom pilot, a TV show for fans of TV, starring an ensemble of small-screen royalty. It’s by no means a flawless show, and there’s no certainty that even a trio as strong as this one can float the series by sheer force of will, but if the last 10 minutes are any indication, Up All Night may just find itself the most elusive trophy of all: an audience.