When NBC rolled out its upfront plan, the network revealed a slew of new comedies. Among regrettable multi-camera schlock (Whitney, Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea) and boring mid-season fodder (Bent, BFFs) were two sitcoms that would fit right in with NBC’s revitalized Thursday night bloc.
Up All Night stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents Reagan and Chris Brinkley, beleaguered by parenthood and the tenuous work-life balance. Created by Emily Spivey (SNL, Parks and Recreation), the show has the documentary feel popularized by The Office and Parks and Rec, although Up All Night forgoes the talking head testimonials of those shows. Tight shots and quick cuts give the show a manic quality: the kind of over-tired energy one gets from being up all night. As Chris struggles with his new life as a stay-at-home dad, Reagan returns to work for Ava (Maya Rudolph). Ava stars in an eponymous talk show that is equal parts Oprah and Tara; Reagan is the Liz Lemon to her Jenna Maroney. While 30 Rock has beaten that dynamic into the ground, it fares better here: Ava is over-the-top and self-obsessed, but with some vulnerability and sweetness.
This is Christina Applegate’s third sitcom foray since Married… with Children, after the short-lived Jesse and Samantha Who. With her comedic timing (and age-defying good looks), it’s just been a matter before she finds a well-suited vehicle; this might be it. The same can be said about Will Arnett, minus the age-defying good looks. One of the funniest men on television, Will Arnett gets a role that is more grounded than his on Arrested Development, Running Wilde, and 30 Rock. As always, his deadpan delivery slays: “Your beats are so tight after three Jager Bombs.” As a couple, their chemistry is real, and the pilot ranges from twisted (Matt Lauer breaking the fourth wall) to sweet and vulgar (neither can get over how “fucking beautiful” baby Amy is).
Free Agents is an adaptation of a British workplace comedy (sound familiar?). Helmed by original series creator Chris Neil and John Enbom (Veronica Mars, Party Down), the dialogue is as sharp and quick-witted as anything NBC has done – while also decidedly darker. Alex (Hank Azaria) is recently divorced and the tiniest thought about his children sets off the waterworks. Helen (Kathryn Hahn) is dealing with the death of her fiancee, and despite constant reminders (a staggering 22 portrait-style photos in her apartment) and an over reliance on wine and frozen meals, she’s handling things a bit better than Alex. In true sitcom style, the two have a drunken one-night stand, yet are determined to keep things professional at the PR firm they both work at.
The “will they, won’t they” formula has been done before, but hopefully it is a plot device and not the entire premise. There is a wealth of situational and character humor to mine here, with a fantastic ensemble of comedic talent. Free Agents actually reminds me of Newsradio in that way, with the sexual tension between the leads, an off-beat secretary (Natasha Leggero), off-putting co-workers (Al Madrigal, Joe Lo Truglio), and a zany boss (Anthony Stewart Head, reprising his role from the UK series). Newsradio as a single-camera black comedy? Sign me up. The reference to Party Down (“I have no plans to DJ at an Armenian man’s acquittal party”) is icing on the cake.
NBC’s strongest new offerings, Up All Night and Free Agents officially premiere next week (the network is calling the airing of these pilots a “preview”). While these might be the network’s best efforts at eventually replacing the aging flagships The Office and 30 Rock, they’ll have to build an audience on Wednesdays first, against Survivor and ABC’s surprisingly strong comedy bloc (including powerhouse Modern Family). Hopefully, NBC gives them the support they’ll need to do that.