Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall Pilots 2011: Up All Night/Free Agents

NBC, Wednesdays 8:00, 8:30

I rarely spend much effort looking over the debuting shows each fall.  I don't tend to follow what's coming up, and I rarely actively seek shows out.  But if a commercial interests me or I read an article about a show that piques my curiousity or I hear that an actor or creator I like is involved in the endeavor I'll check it out.  Usually these new selections wind up staying on my radar only so briefly.  The last weekly show I stuck with after the pilot was "Community" and I don't recall which show would have been before that.  I came to most of my current viewing late.

This year, I can't say it'll be much different except that I plan to check out a few more new shows than usual, but I don't expect to be watching many of them week to week, or for much longer than a month.  There's not a lot of shows out there that can fill up a full 22-to-25 episode order and sustain my interest.

This weekend my daughter was on a play date and my friends told me they liked Up All Night, a new comedy with Cristina Applegate and... that guy.  I recalled reading about it, also starring Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph, produced by Lorne Michaels (so it's got a solid backbone).  I looked it up on "On Demand" (which makes watching TV so much easier), and found both of NBC's new Wednesday night comedies there.

Up All Night looks like the latest in a spate of "new parenting" shows, following in the heels of successes like Modern Family and Raising Hope, only this is about "cool" parents.  Successful upscale, urban dwellers who work and party hard... real douchebag types, only softened into viewer-friendly, warm, intelligent, thoughtful people and how they must adapt from their old lifestyle into responsible parents.

It's a dual purpose show with Arnett and Applegate having an incredible chemistry, and Arnett's usual severe or ostentatious personality transformed into an outright likable, affable guy.  Once a high-powered lawyer, he's taking on the stay-at-home dad role, with Applegate returning to her executive producer role on "Ava", an Oprah-meets-Ellen-style daytime chat show starring her best friend (Maya Rudolph is a natural as Ava).  Applegate is described as the only competent person working on the show, and it looked to be falling apart without her presence, especially with Rudolph adopting the diva attitude and running ramshackle over everyone else.  There's a bit of a disparity between the histrionics at the "Ava" workplace and the natural, lower-key atmosphere of the homestead, so there's either going to be a nice polarity or a jarring one as the series progresses.  It's currently up in the air.  It was a cute pilot, but not a necessarily strong one. 

On the other hand, Free Agents was both cute and strong.  Exceptionally strong.  The same idea applies as Up All Night in that the main characters are very well grounded while being surrounded by a workplace full of off-beat caricatures, but the difference is the workplace is only somewhat askew without getting too loud about it.

Newsradio just popped up on Netflix Canada, and there's a remarkable parallel between the first episodes of that show and this one, with Anthony Stewart Head taking on the Stephen Root role as the somewhat aloof head of the PR agency where Dave Foley and Maura Tierney stand-ins Hank Azaria and Katheryn Hahn work.  Jo Lo Truglio takes on the "oddball outsider" role that Joe Rogan played, while comedian Al Madrigal takes on the loveable goof that Andy Dick did and Nataha Leggero is elicits the exact same dry smarm that Vicki Lewis did.  But this isn't a knock.  Archetypes are what every comedy is built upon, it's how you differentiate them that decides whether you succeed or fail.

Here, there's a hard focus on Azaria's literally just-divorced Alex, a self-described terrible liar (who works in PR?), former rock journalist who doesn't really understand how he came to be where he is.  There's an equal focus on Hahn's Helen, a ballsy PR rep who's proven herself as tough as the guys, whose fiancee passed away a year ago and she still hasn't dealt with it.  They naturally wind up in bed together, in fact the show starts with them in bed together.  The tryst is obviously an unfortunate one, and neither is in shape for a relationship, yet they're both so very alone.

What I like about the show is how real both Alex and Helen come off, they're complex, at times they say things that sound less like a script and more like actual conversation.  They have logic but they also have emotions and are often conflicted between the two.  What's even more evident is the show may be flinging them together sexually but it seems to be building a friendship, going in the opposite direction that most do.

The supporting cast is great, with Head playing well against his usual stoic, prim/proper, fatherly, bureaucratic type into a bit of a free-thinking, does-what-he-wants showboat.  Madrigal is effortlessly charming and Leggero is nasty in an amusingly dismissive way.  Lo Truglio should make a great odd duck and an effective one if kept in a limited role.

Apparently this one's based off a British series which explains its tone and appeal.  I'm not sure if it can pad itself out over lengthy seasons effectively but it'll be interesting to see if its successful in trying.