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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up All Night and Free Agents

Up All Night follows Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) as their hard-working, hard-partying lives are changed by an unplanned newborn. The pilot quickly dispatches with the pregnancy and commences on Reagan’s first day back at work and stay-at-home dad Chris’s first day home alone with the baby. Maya Rudolph plays Reagan’s boss, a talk show diva named Ava, a character conceived to try and take advantage of Ms. Rudolph’s broad and loud style from SNL.

With Lorne Michaels producing and the show being conceived by former Parks and Rec writer Emily Spivey, there is reason to have faith that the show will be funny. However that capacity is not demonstrated very much in the pilot. Applegate and Arnett seem woefully miscast. They seem too fit for the mommy and daddy roles that are supposedly throwing their lives into chaos. I just didn’t buy them as being reluctant to give up hard-partying. The scenes at Reagan’s workplace, which were reshot after the initial pilot to give Rudolph’s character more prominence, provide no amusement whatsoever. A silly plot about booking a quack doctor is poorly developed and utterly predictable.

There are a few funny lines (slight grin funny, not outright laugh funny) tucked into the banter between Reagan and Chris, especially when Chris tries to be reassuring but actually winds up saying, “Babe, worry, I can’t totally do this.” But these are tucked in the corners, practically hidden while bigger, louder set-pieces clunk and die.

Prognosis: It’s hard to predict NBC since even really low ratings can look good on NBC, but I think NBC is going to abandon the idea of Wednesday night comedy and that means a single season for Up All Night, unless Lorne Michaels is even more powerful than we know.

Free Agents doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of buzz, but the British import got off to a strong start in its pilot episode. The show opens with Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) in bed, post-coitus. They have a little tete-a-tete about whether he should call a cab or stay which serves as a nice little bit of exposition. In about two minutes we find out that he’s recently divorced and an emotional wreck, while she’s still reeling from the sudden death of her fiancĂ© a year ago. She can’t bear to take down all the studio portraits they had done as a couple just before his death.

It’s kind of a brave thing for a comedy to do, be so upfront about the sadness and despair in life and make it front and center in your two main characters. It’s a little darker than your average sitcom premise, even if it is just a way to get us to sympathize for Helen and Alex and root for them to get together.

More traditionally comedic are the scenes set at the corporate PR office where Helen and Alex both work. There they both struggle to fit in with a ruthless, charmingly creepy boss (Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and an office culture that is a bit younger, cruder, and brasher than suits their tastes.

The office is replete with stand-up comedians utilizing their talents. Mo Mandel is the bro who wants to use Alex’s divorce to turn him into a wingman. Natasha Leggero is the caustic secretary who has no respect for Alex and wants to take his job. And Al Madrigal is the annoying married guy trying to fit in, and whom no one can stand to listen to. Joe Lo Truglio (whom you will definitely recognize from the small roles he has in nearly every Apatow or David Wain movie) plays the weird but harmless security guard whom Alex has befriended so he can sleep in the office.

The only character I didn’t like was Leggero’s, but that may just be a personal thing. I’ve often found her brand of ironic veneer especially phony and irritating. It doesn’t help that in the pilot she’s not so much sarcastic as just mean. The show sets up Alex as a likable hero, and Leggero’s character just dumps on him. On Cheers, if Carla had ragged on Sam Malone instead of Cliff, that wouldn’t have worked very well.

People who think Free Agents looks like a boring network show should be advised that the show was created by one of Party Down’s chief writers John Enbom. There is even a clever little shoutout to Party Down in the scene where Helen takes Alex clothes-shopping for his blind date. Shown a purple-striped shirt, Alex explains that he doesn’t want to buy it because, “I’m not planning to DJ an Armenian gangster’s acquittal party.”

Prognosis: Unfortunately, if I’m right about NBC’s retreat from Wednesday night comedy, that probably means Free Agents is a goner too. Hank Azaria isn’t the ratings draw a show like this probably needs.

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