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Lacking sleep, but not potential

Christina Applegate and Will Arnett play 40-ish first-time parents in NBC’s “Up All Night.’’ Christina Applegate and Will Arnett play 40-ish first-time parents in NBC’s “Up All Night.’’ (Trae Patton/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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‘Up All Night’’ has me confused. NBC sent out a lovely preview disc that brought fresh energy to a few tired sitcom tropes, including new-parents-cope-with-sleeplessness, Mr.-Mom-gets-frazzled, and working-mom-deals-with-home-life-versus-professional-life. Christina Applegate and Will Arnett were likable as the parents, who have their first child, like so many people now, while hovering around age 40. And Maya Rudolph was a great bunch of loose marbles as Applegate’s boss, a narcissistic publicist to the stars.

Best of all, the pilot was built on character humor, like “Modern Family,’’ and not on glib one-liners or forced farce. Series creator Emily Spivey, a writer for “Saturday Night Live,’’ seemed to have a firm idea of what she wanted the tone of her show to be: relaxed, human, not “sit- comy.’’

Then last week NBC sent out a reworked pilot, airing tonight at 10 on Channel 7, and it’s just not as charming as the original. The motive behind changing the episode was to beef up Rudolph’s role - not a bad impulse since she was so winning in the original pilot. She has a unique sense of timing and delivery, as her “Saturday Night Live’’ fans know, and “Up All Night’’ seemed to have found a way to make those attributes work in a controlled setting. Just as “Arrested Development’’ took the free-ranging David Cross and managed to fit him into a sitcom world, “Up All Night’’ helped make Rudolph prime-time-able.

But now, instead of a publicist, Rudolph is a talk-show guru named Ava, and Applegate’s Reagan is her producer. Ava is a silly monster who walks all over her terrified assistant, played by Jennifer Hall, while she lavishes Reagan with respect. Rudolph was believable as a morally ditzy publicist who was Reagan’s friend, the devil on her shoulder always trying to get her to go out partying; she’s merely a spoof as an over-indulged TV star. Her new character brings a wackier element to the show, which undermines the fine authenticity that Spivey initially set up. Now Rudolph has a more expandable role, I suppose, but she is also less connected to the other characters. The whole Ava talk show business feels like it belongs in a more satirical sitcom of its own.

So like I said, I’m confused. I still have hope for “Up All Night,’’ which will move to its regular 8 p.m. timeslot next week, and I will be avidly looking to see how it develops. Arnett was becoming tiresome as the nutty egomaniac he played in “Arrested Development,’’ “30 Rock,’’ and “Running Wilde.’’ So it’s a relief to see him toning down his affect here, as video game-playing hubby Chris; he’s much more palatable as a series lead. When he and Applegate compete over who has been sacrificing more sleep due to the baby, it’s a good example of humor born of truth, funny for having been singled out.

So Spivey has three appealing actors, and she has established a warm single-camera atmosphere. She has also found a concept that, like “Modern Family,’’ represents a few subtle cultural shifts of the past few decades - people having children later in their fertile years, after having lived, worked, and partied without family responsibilities. If she can find a way to mix Rudolph in with the spirit of “Up All Night,’’ she might just help the struggling NBC find itself a small hit.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

UP ALL NIGHT Starring: Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 10-10:30