Reality Television: Up All Night S01 E01

17 September 2011


It’s that time of the year–a certain crispness in the air (unless you live in LA), crinkling leaves littering the ground (unless you live in LA), and the mingling sense of desperation and excitement that announces the arrival of pilot season (only if you live in LA).

I want to like Up All Night. Arrested Development ended five years ago and Will Arnett needs a hit. I love the incredibly talented Maya Rudolph, and Christina Applegate is a perfectly acceptable blond everywoman. She’s not especially quirky, but that’s okay, since she’s playing the generic mommy-executive type.

The premise is unfortunately simple: Mommy (Applegate) returns to work after having Baby, Daddy (Arnett) used to work (apparently he played hockey and worked in a law firm, definitively establishing Arnett’s Canadian heritage) but now he’s Mr. Mom, and Mommy’s boss is a real wackadoo (Rudolph). How will Mommy balance career and family? Will Daddy get resentful as Baby’s primary caregiver? And how will Crazy Boss provide hilarious comic relief? Pretty standard stuff.

Up All Night is completely watchable, but I’m having some real difficulty pinpointing exactly what is so boring about this show. At times the dialogue is pretty snappy, but then there are some clunky expository lines that hopefully will disappear once the show gets underway. There’s a certain leniency required to critique a pilot episode because its demands are so wholly different from an episode that comes halfway through an established series. So I’m willing to forgive the leaden repartee between Arnett’s character and Applegate’s in this early episode, but that doesn’t change the fact that Up All Night is just plain tedious.

If Emily Spivey, the creator, is sincerely trying to create a series that provokes the same feelings of ennui and malaise (god bless the French) in her audience that the Mommy and Daddy characters feel, then job well done. A rousing success.

The problem is that this strategy is too successful. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a mewling brat clinging to my neck as I puree real food into baby slops, but this show is tedious. I’m inclined to think that even if I could relate to the PARENTING EXPERIENCE (emphasis mine), I’d still find Up All Night dull and uninspired.

Yeah, babies change your life. It’s really tough at first, but then you get used to it. Almost 7 billion people have had or will have this revelation. Does this really mean we need a sitcom about it? And who’s the target audience for a show about the difficulties of being young(ish), white, middle-class, and raising a kid? Do other youngish, white, middle-class people really want to watch a show about the struggles of their peers? If I’ve been at work all day dealing with an infantile boss, or I’ve been home dealing with an actual infant, do I really want to come home and watch more of the same?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good television is an escape from the mundane; great television is an escape, but it also makes you think. Mildly watchable, but mostly uninteresting, television is home movies with higher production values. And no one wants to see another YouTube video of your adorable baby. Just like homemade sex videos, keep that shit to yourself.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to see an awesome show that’s superficially about parenting, I would recommend Raising Hope. I caught up on the first season of Raising Hope a few months ago and it’s easily one of the best sitcoms on television right now. Up All Night is about raising a baby, but Raising Hope is about the people raising a baby.

This may seem like a negligible discrepancy, but it makes all the difference. Applegate and Arnett’s characters are bland, suburban parents, while Rudolph’s character is the insane outlier that redeems the show from the domain of the purely mediocre. Raising Hope inverts this formula: the Mommy and Daddy characters are cut from the same cloth as Rudolph’s Up all Night character, as are many of the supporting roles, and only the Baby-Daddy’s character is bland–but necessarily so, as a foil to the trash-talking, chain-smoking Mommy and the oblivious, but well-meaning, Daddy. If you’re looking for diversion over parenting tips, laughs over commiseration, skip Up All Night and check out Raising Hope instead. The second season premieres next week on FOX, so you’ve still got a week to catch up. Stay tuned!

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A Final Act of Contrition: A Follow-Up to New Girl

16 September 2011

An unfortunate instance of synchronicity.

I have a screenwriting class that meets twice a week, and in one recent session, we had to go around the room and discuss voice. Specifically, each writer’s voice when writing, and each writer’s voice when speaking. I use “voice” in the vague sense of one’s personality as it comes across in her writing, and one’s personality as it comes across in her conversation. A writer’s term, naturally, to describe some innate quality that is difficult to assess in concrete language.

I’ll take subversive, feisty, even direct and opinionated. But what I can’t tolerate is being told that I have a tendency to apologize for my work as printed copies are passed around the room. Do I do this? I don’t think I do this. All my life I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid the stereotype of the insecure woman who can’t stand behind the quality of her own work. Sure, I can’t take a compliment to save my life, but apologize for my writing? I never thought I was guilty.

But in writing script, one learns to consider every possible outcome of the story until the right one is clear. So I’ll entertain the possibility that my voice is uncertain and apologetic. And I will work harder to ensure it doesn’t always seem so. But before I go, I need to apologize for one more thing:

I’m sorry I wrote nice, bland pleasantries about New Girl. I’m sorry because when I think about the show, and I think about the conversations I’ve had about it with other women, I need to acknowledge that it’s really just another piece of post-feminist, fairer sex bullshit. So what I’m really sorry for is trying to convince myself and my readers that it was alright.

Here are the reasons why I didn’t eviscerate this undeniably mediocre show:

  1. I went to the screening with friends from the film school, and they all enjoyed it. It’s very hard to be mean when you want people to like you. So you take the easy route and laugh along every time a pretty girls plays at being a loser. Because you know what it feels like to be a loser, and it’s not quite what she’s feeling, but it’s easier to laugh and say Oh, yes, that’s exactly it.
  2. I had just moved to Los Angeles three weeks earlier and I didn’t want a reputation as the mean girl. And I know I’ve earned it, this second sandpaper skin that abrades against everything with a rotten core, but it was too soon. Too early to be the girl who doesn’t like anything.
  3. I wanted to believe in the golden lie that permeates every writers’ room in this town, every coffee shop critique, every mid-morning pitch: if a woman made it and we show it, that’s progress. And I know this is so incredibly wrong, but there it is. The lie that will take me places, the lie that will get my television shows on the air, my romantic comedies on the screen.

Do these sound like women’s reasons? Do these sound like apologetic musings? They should.

I’m sorry I pretended to like a show that was mediocre. I’m sorry I wanted to make friends before art. I’m sorry I bought into that incandescent lie.

I assure you it won’t happen again.