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Hulu’s Up Here takes as one of its central themes the question of whether it’s possible to ever truly and totally know someone, even from within the depths of true love. It’s woven right there into the theme song: A declarative “I can never know you” is chased by the more wistful “Can I ever know you?”
But for two lovers to struggle to open up to each other is one thing. For an audience to have trouble connecting is another. Up Here has its charms, first and foremost a pair of winning lead performances by Carlos Valdes and Mae Whitman. But there’s a disappointing shallowness to the entire affair, even after all the time spent delving into the characters’ innermost psyches.
Cast: Carlos Valdes, Mae Whitman, Katie Finneran, John Hodgman, Andréa Burns, Emilia Suárez, Sophia Hammons,
Creators: Steven Levenson, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Danielle Sanchez-Witzel
As a musical romantic comedy, Up Here‘s pedigree sounds unbeatable on paper. Its writing team is led by co-creators Danielle Sanchez-Witzel (New Girl, The Carmichael Show) and Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick…Boom!). Its original songs are penned by Frozen duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, also credited as co-creators. And its first episode is directed by Thomas Kail, of Hamilton fame. But all these impressive credentials only make more of a letdown how just-okay Up Here turns out to be — cute at times, frustrating at others, never as profound or as original as it wants to be.
One issue is that while there aren’t a lot of musical rom-com series featuring flashy song-and-dance numbers to illustrate a protagonist’s neuroses, there aren’t none — and it’s hard, especially in the early going, to avoid comparing Up Here to the bolder, sharper, altogether more insightful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But the bigger problem is that, underneath all that razzle dazzle, the themes and storylines Up Here is serving up are not very fresh; nor does the series offer any new spin or perspective to spruce them up.
Lindsay (Whitman) feels like a particularly familiar archetype, of a small-town girl who gives up her safe but boring life to pursue a career as a writer in New York — so familiar that the series largely glosses over specifics like whether she was ever happy in her old life, or what makes her so passionate about writing. Miguel (Valdes) is drawn with a bit more specificity: He’s an investment banker who doesn’t entirely fit into his chosen profession, in part because he’s the rare brown guy among a sea of rich white dudes whose dads all know each other, and in part because he’s a sensitive soul still reeling from a broken engagement. The pair meet cute at a bar one night, where they banter about bathroom sex before retreating to his office to do hand stuff.
Then he starts crying and runs off, and thus begins a repeated cycle of miscommunication, conflict and reconciliation that will continue over much of 1999. What keeps these clearly smitten lovers apart are not exterior forces but their own internal issues. Lindsay and Miguel each have a veritable Greek chorus of voices in their heads, who tend to break out into song with them as they go down spirals of self-doubt or soar with fantasies of happily ever after. Hers are an uptight, anxious, judgmental bunch that include her mother (Katie Finneran), her father (John Hodgman) and, for some reason, a friend from junior high (Sophia Hammond) so underwritten she seems to have no personality at all. His are better differentiated, and include his doting late mother (Andréa Burns), his vicious high-school ex (Emilia Suárez) and the man (Scott Porter) his ex-fiancée had been cheating on him with.
The conceit makes us privy to their messy inner lives, and sometimes the results are illuminating. Porter’s character is a snarling embodiment of alpha-male masculinity who has less to do with his real-life counterpart than Miguel’s emotional experience of him; we learn later that Miguel never even knew his name. A few of the songs are also pretty fun, including a circus-inspired number in which guest star Brian Stokes Mitchell (playing a successful children’s book author who rouses Lindsay’s interest and Miguel’s jealousy) spells out each of the “so many ways” in which Miguel does not measure up.
Most, however, fall into the category of sweet but forgettable, despite Valdes and Whitman’s considerable singing chops and willingness to hurl themselves headfirst into whatever intense emotions are required of them. At times, the songs feel like distractions — just another layer of stuff keeping us from seeing these characters and their relationship as they truly are. Which, to be fair, may be the point, since both heroes have a tendency to get lost in their own heads. But it says something that the season’s most affecting moments tend to come not in the over-the-top songs, but in humbler, quieter scenes — like a series of phone calls in which Lindsay and Miguel begin to warm to each other bit by bit, or a heartfelt conversation in which Miguel’s father gently offers him advice.
Or, for that matter, in the way Whitman and Valdes seem to soften when they’re together. The pair do much to make Up Here work to the extent that it does. Her warmth and effervescence keep us rooting for Lindsay as she barrels through one questionable decision after another, while his leading-man smolder turns Miguel into more than just a sad-sack nice guy. Together, they generate enough chemistry that it feels a shame so much of the series is watching them pulled apart again and again — it leaves too little room for them, or us, to simply savor the romance they’re able to build in spite of all the voices fretting or scoffing or snarling that they’d never work.
Then again, when season one reached the end of eight half-hour episodes with a reveal setting up a possible season two, I found myself more annoyed than excited at the prospect of spending still more time with them. Maybe what Miguel and Lindsay have together really is special. If only their show felt more so.
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