'Up All Night' and 'Free Agents': TV Reviews

Trae Patton/NBC

One of the new comedies is a potential breakout, but the other's pilot lacks chemistry between its leads.

The NBC comedy Up All Night, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 14, could break out this year. Starring Will Arnett and Christina Applegate as a married couple who just had a baby, it cleverly touches on all the hardships a new addition brings, along with the joy — and manages to do this without being so sappy you want to hang yourself.

Credit creator and writer Emily Spivey (Parks and Recreation) for getting the tone just right, from jokes about when the couple find out they’re pregnant (“Stop saying, ‘There’s a baby in there’ like it’s a baby in a closet with a knife”) to their combined astonishment and horror that they now have to care for it (Arnett and Applegate swearing about how cute the baby is works perfectly well, as does their exasperated exhaustion).

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The series also stars Maya Rudolph as Ava, a talk show host who’s needy and emotional and wants her producer, Reagan (Applegate), to come back to work. Rudolph, along with newly hired Nick Cannon as her co-host, allow Up All Night to veer away from 30 minutes of all parenting and baby jokes.

But the truth is that the show is funniest when it focuses there. Arnett plays Chris, the stay-at-home-dad trying to handle that situation — his getting lost in the supermarket and unable to find cheese is one of those random bits that really work — while maintaining his manhood. Arnett is exceptional here, able to ratchet down the manic absurdism he already does so brilliantly and play the comedy at a quieter level. Applegate is also excellent and might have finally found the sitcom that has the writing to showcase her comic timing.

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Less successful for NBC, but a sitcom that still has some hope if future episodes can improve on the pilot, is Free Agents (10:30 p.m. Sept. 14) based on the British series. It focuses on Alex (Hank Azaria), who just got a divorce he didn’t want, and Helen (Kathryn Hahn), whose fiance recently died. They share an ill-advised tryst together and then try to survive the fallout while their co-workers hound them. It’s a workplace comedy and a romantic comedy, minus much of the romance.

Part of the problem is that there’s no chemistry between Azaria and Hahn, and making Azaria the sappy dad who misses his kids and cries a lot about his life isn’t the best role for him. (He clearly would excel as someone mean and sarcastic but finds himself in these emotional-romantic roles that just don’t seem all that believable.) But despite a pilot that couldn’t find a rhythm or sense of place, there’s enormous potential here, so you wonder if, like famous examples 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, it might take four or so episodes to really click.

Here’s why there should be the benefit of the doubt: It was created by John Enbom (Party Down), was directed and is executive produced by Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) and has a cast of funny actors, including Al Madrigal (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Anthony Head (Little Britain, Manchild), plus Natasha Leggero and Joe Lo Truglio, whose work here could really flesh out the concept.

So, it should work, and yet the pilot doesn’t. If you’re thinking this might be generous, remember that this fall is full of shows just like this – uncertain futures of possibly excellent results (or cancellation).

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