Up All Night may be the first great sitcom about babies.
Up All Night (NBC, debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET), created by Saturday Night Live writer Emily Spivey under the aegis of Lorne Michaels, is a sitcom about the tender, vulnerable, unpredictable creatures recently arrived home from the maternity ward. I refer, of course, to new parents. Though the Up All Night pilot falls short of great hilarity, the series demonstrates considerable potential. More importantly, its arrival brings a merciful end to the show's pre-debut promos, which have proved a nuisance to those people most freshly appreciative of the situation of the protagonists. All summer long, all across the country, thousands upon thousands of innocent rookie parents have heard a baby's wailing in these ads and pitched forward on the couch with chagrin: "Is that the baby? That is not the fucking baby!"
I resort to profanity advisedly. The series appears in the year of Go the F**k to Sleep, a brilliantly potty-mouthed novelty book addressing obscene frustration, and in a running gag, its protagonists—Reagan and Chris, played by Christina Applegate and Will Arnett—spend time cussily cooing over their baby girl: "So fucking beautiful!" The swearing is a minor evocation of the carefree lives they abandoned for the good of the species, of the childish things they are setting aside in favor picking up dropped teething rings. It also reads as a displacement of the scatology that a show involving babies would deal in were it being grossly honest—the bodily farce of the kid pooping in the bath or spitting up with a prolificacy such that the beleaguered parent resigns himself to wallowing in the curdled spew. I very much hope that, when the Up All Night child starts on solids, one of her parents has the presence of mind to quote Martin Lawrence's immortal line from Bad Boys 2: "Shit just got real."
But right now the daughter, Amy, is maybe 4 or 6 months old, somewhere in the delightful window where babies can hold their heads up very nicely but cannot yet crawl, an activity they indulge in strictly for the purposes of destroying first editions and attempting to chug Windex. Chris has set aside his career as a lawyer to stay home with the kid, which involves getting freaked out at the supermarket and playing first-person shooter games with other stay-at-home dads. Reagan has returned to work as a producer of a daytime talk show. Her boss, named Ava, is played by Maya Rudolph, who is doing a diva-wackadoo thing, all whims and appetites and unreasonable needs. Though this mode of hers is possibly best appreciated in small doses, the pilot grants her an excess of screen time. Why? Could it be that Ava—a notably popular baby name at this writing—serves thematically, on some level, as the couple's second child?
In any case, Reagan manages Ava's behavior—the binge eating, the fad spirituality, the abrupt tantrums—with a confidence indicating that she'll prove adept at dealing with a person who has not reached the age of reason. This is despite the evidence that she is the loonier half of the parenting team. Where Applegate flickers with wildness, Arnett, in a welcome change of pace, proves relatively subdued. In fact, the show as a whole is milder than other recent NBC sitcoms, with their absurdist flights and daft lobs, and it soft-pedals the occasional strangeness, variously Kafka- and Pinteresque, of parenting itself. Do not count on Dr. Spacemen appearing as a pediatrician or the kid developing colic and wailing through the rest of the season.
One welcome exception to this rule involves Up All Night's conjuring of half-conscious fuzziness. Reagan, attempting to wrestle herself into her skirt in the morning while Today plays in the background, hallucinates that Matt Lauer is telling her that she no longer has the figure for it. Chris, nervous and bleary, is on the verge on being syntactic to sentence a construct unable. Elsewhere, the two of them argue about who spent more time attending to the baby in the dead of the night, and they reach no resolution, the truth of the matter having been lost in the fog of war.
The other special moment follows a scene where Reagan and Chris celebrate their anniversary with a long, hard night of booze and karaoke, having somehow found a babysitter who'll stay on duty past last call. The dawn comes rudely. There is no hangover like the one that gets itself maliciously in gear while you're changing a diaper. Holding his beautiful baby, Daddy touches his head to hers, the delicate gesture conveying that this not just a sign of affection but a magical-thinking attempt to stop the throbbing. It is a quiet tender moment. "Are we dead?" Chris wonders, sincerely, while pouring coffee. We say to him, sympathetically, "Cry it out."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from NBC's Up All Night by NBCUniversal Media LLC. All rights reserved.