I watched Up All Night, a new NBC sitcom starring two supremely talented comic actors (Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph) and another exceptional one, Christina Applegate, and I have to ask…did Seinfeld happen? Because every time I started to enjoy Up All Night, the damn premise (that this was a show about new parents, adjusting to grownup life blah blah) would rear its cute little baby head and ruin things.
What I mean is, I wish the lesson taken away from Seinfeld had been that you could have a “show about nothing” if you had talented enough people writing and performing in it. You don’t have to have a premise, contrived character arcs, and so forth. You will remember that the pilot Jerry and George produced for NBC in the “show within a show” season of Seinfeld got stuck with a ridiculous plot about a car wreck and the guilty party being sentenced to serve as George’s butler.
Will Arnett must feel like he’s similarly been sentenced to sitcom character hell in Up All Night. It felt truly painful to watch him strapped into this role, knowing how hilarious he can be when allowed to forego pretensions of naturalist performance: see Gob on Arrested Development, Devon Banks on 30 Rock, Brent Wilts on The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Maybe it’s the Ketel One product placement on Up All Night that requires Arnett’s character to be so uptight, the better to illustrate the need of parents to booze it up.
I was hoping Arnett would come in as the new boss on The Office, but I’d be a fool to complain after seeing James Spader interview as “Robert California” last season. I understand why Michael Scott needed to be much more empathetic than David Brent in order to push The Office into season after season for syndication. By the look of things, Spader’s Robert California might be a different story. I hope so, and I offer one example of someone who did learn from Seinfeld that a contrived premise and character arcs aren’t necessary: Larry David. On this year’s finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he got kicked out of NYC by Mayor Bloomberg himself. His crime: being the same Larry David he’s been all along.