Has there been a television season with more widespread timeline-scrambling than the fall of 2011? Between Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the many nonlinear threads of Pan Am, and Up All Night’s “Birth,” you’d be excused for thinking that Lost was still at the height of its popularity. Or that the whole of the television industry is a film school, and it’s 1994, and the entire student body saw Pulp Fiction on opening weekend and is now out to apply its crash course in nonlinear narratives to their own work. (Or maybe we can just blame it all on Inspector Spacetime.)
I may be exaggerating the trend, but it’s bizarre that such disparate series are playing around with chronology—and it’s heartening that none of them appear to be doing so just for the hell of it. The Community example is just another in a long line of storytelling experiments which helped further define the dynamic of its core ensemble; Pan Am’s chronological jumping helps shape its characters as well as to give them something to do in episodes bound to the confines of an international airliner. The cynical explanation for “Birth” would be that credited writer Caroline Williams felt beginning the series in media res robbed Up All Night of several valuable “pooping on the birthing table” jokes. And while “Birth” includes several requisite nods to the gross-out aspects childbirth, it transcends those jokes to give a more complete picture of its three main characters. (I say three because Ava’s obviously not going anywhere, and we should just get used to that fact.)
So why do it now? Why not start a series about new parents from the very moment where they become new parents? Probably because that feels too easy, and while Up All Night certainly isn’t the most ambitious sitcom on NBC’s current lineup, it’s also not one that takes a lot of shortcuts. Also, for an episode that involves characters going through the intense emotions of childbirth, it definitely helps to have a good sense of those people first. You could definitely get a good impression of Reagan’s obsessive planning and Ava’s reluctance to lose her best friend if you started with “Birth,” but those details and the laughs that arise from them wouldn’t be effective if they didn’t have five previous episodes backing them up. And the groundwork that was laid before “Birth” opens it up for minor jokes as well as major ones: One of the funniest aspects of the episode is Barry, the oblivious, now-canned Ava announcer who lists URLs letter by letter and delays the Brinkleys’ ride to the hospital with his red convertible and his pesky waving. Knowing he’ll be gone soon enough makes the character’s presence all the funnier.
And while it might not be necessary to your enjoyment of the character, it’s still nice to get a glimpse of Chris’ pre-Amy life—and the reasons he’s not practicing law in the present-day episodes. Williams’ script is wise to keep the details to a minimum, but it’s fairly evident from Chris’ interactions with Bryan Callen’s Mark that the firm was a bit too slick and conniving for our gawky dad-to-be. (The phone conversation that starts his scene at the firm is the first moment of Up All Night where you can see that ol’ GOB glint sneaking into Will Arnett’s eye—and it looks totally false on the character.) “Birth” sets Chris up to make the decision to become a stay-at-home dad, and while that plot is the episode’s least interesting and most clumsy (it takes one conversation with Ava to go from returning to the office in one week to taking an indefinite sabbatical), it still adds some information about the character we wouldn’t otherwise have.
Of course, to go back to Amy’s birth so early into the series suggests that the Up All Night staff is already running low on “new parents” stories. Not like that’s necessarily a bad thing. There are only so many of those you can tell without repeating yourself, and the series has passed the point where Reagan and Chris’ status as new parents is the only defining aspect of their characters. Parenthood is always likely to present the “situation” in this situation comedy, but the most fun parts of the series are where the characters get to bump up against one another, and you don’t always need the baby stuff to do that. The strongest material in “Birth” (and I’m of the opinion that this is the strongest episode of the series to date) is relationship- and character-based: Chris and Reagan overreacting to the birthing DVD; Ava marveling over that fact that Missy’s uncut hair was on her head “when Tupac was alive”; the encounter with Gene and Terry in the hospital lobby; Reagan turning birth into a competition. The episode posits again and again that the most intricate and detailed plans frequently go awry (too many times, really—it’s a salient point, and a crucial one to Chris and Reagan, but it gets beat over the head), and that’s a theme with comedic potential that can spring from a multitude of scenarios. And not all of them have to do with a baby.
My main hesitation with “Birth” is that it opens Up All Night to any number of flashback episodes—like a mid-pregnancy episode or the night Amy was conceived. A brief check-in with the past is enough—too much time in the past detracts from the relationships and dynamics the writers could be developing in the present. The show’s balancing enough as it is with alternating between the at-home scenes and the Ava scenes, there’s no need to overload that balance with at-home scenes and Ava scenes set in the past. Plan all they may, there’s plenty of fresh, new chaos awaiting Chris, Reagan, Amy, and Ava in the present—and as much as I enjoyed “Birth,” the present is where I hope the series ends up spending most of its time.
- When Reagan is discussing the physical toll the pregnancy is taking on her, my screener DVD of “Birth” flashes the caption “VFX: ENHANCE SWEAT STAINS.” So I hope you, the at-home viewer enjoys the sweatier sweat stains afforded by the post-production process.
- Reagan, high as a kite thanks to her decision to accept an epidural, begins singing Live’s overwrought ode to the life cycle, “Lightning Crashes.” I’m kind of disappointed she doesn’t start at the first verse, because it’s always funny to hear someone sing the word “placenta.”
- On that note, I appreciate the way that Up All Night is a pop-culture conscious series without being pop-culture dependent. You don’t have to know Live, or know the lyrics to “Lightning Crashes” to appreciate the absurdity of Reagan breaking into a power ballad as she’s rolling toward the operating room.
- Sam Page plays Reagan’s obstetrician, Dr. Goddard. He’s the only actor on television who’s had the pleasure of romancing both Joan Holloway and Serena Van Der Woodsen.
- That’s an all-star reaction from Arnett after Ava’s “She is not easy like me” line about Reagan. Squinty-eyed, disbelieving, understated—big laugh.
- Chris prepares to take Reagan to the hospital: “I brought a stapler, so we’re good with that.”
- Ava loses it with Barry: “Barry, move! It’s not about you right now!”
- Dr. Goddard arrives: “That doctor is gorgeous.” “Yeah, he’s like Dutch or something.”
- Reagan reflects on her decision to receive the epidural: “Lots of women get epidurals: Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Amelia Earhart—we gotta find her!”
- Reagan eliminates the need for that “origin of Amy” episode: “We drank a $9 bottle of wine, and now there’s another human being on the Earth.”