At some point in the distant future, when we’ve flooded the entire globe and wear our iPhones like shirts (March 2013), Megan Mullally will have worn out her welcome as a guest star on every single funny TV show. But that time is a really long time from now (March 2013), and therefore her appearance in “Rivals” is a welcome source of chaos for the show — even if she does remind me of a weaker version of Tammy 2 from Parks and Recreation. She’s just really good at playing people who are really nice to your face while secretly scheming against you.
On Up All Night, she’s Shayna, a former correspondent of sorts from Ava’s show who, with the help of Ava and Reagan, turned her entire life around. Three years ago, she was morbidly obese and completely depressed; with the help of the show, she trimmed down and developed a magnetic personality, plus effortless rapport with Ava, especially during the cooking segments. Then when her contract was up for renewal, she ditched Ava for the cozy confines of her own show, which was fine until all of Ava’s show ideas started mysteriously showing up on Shayna’s show, conspicuously close to the day Ava was going to do them. Ava decides to launch a martial arts segment? Shayna’s breaking blocks with her hands. Ava’s all decked out for salsa dancing? Shayna already has a rose between her teeth.
The ordeal serves as the main story in “Rivals,” but really there isn’t much to it. Ava and Reagan confront Shayna at a bar about what’s been happening, and Shayna apologizes — throwing in that she can get the three of them into a really nice restaurant that night. They go out, things seem fine, then Shayna steals yet again. So Reagan flips out and forces Shayna to appear on Ava’s show and bury the hatchet. It’s all pretty controlled and expected, and just goes to highlight that the show still hasn’t figured out what to do with Ava. She’s only occasionally woven into what’s happening at home with Reagan and Chris, and “Rivals” demonstrates that even when the central conflict happens to involve Ava, she just lets the chips fall where they may. Her personality is completely non-confrontational, which doesn’t heighten any of the comedy happening around her. She’s built as a force to be reckoned with, but so much of that is implied by the way her underlings and fans treat her, or it happens off-screen during segments of the show that are described later on. It’d be one thing if Ava took the focus every so often, like Pete on 30 Rock. But she’s one of the three major characters on the show, and it still doesn’t often feel like that.
On the other hand, the Chris-Reagan story line was pretty interesting, but it was forced to cut itself short for the sake of time constraints. It dealt with that thing couples do when watching TV together, forcing their significant other to wait for them so they can experience Coach Taylor’s motivational speeches together. It works for Reagan and Chris when Reagan is working normal hours and coming home with enough energy to stay awake for 43 minutes in Dillon, Texas. It doesn’t work lately, though: She starts making the “sleepy jerk” motion within seconds of starting an episode, and Chris is once again deprived of Landry-isms for another 24 hours.
Then, the next day, Chris is hanging out with his friend Laura, gossiping about the other moms in the playgroup (Chris has simply embraced his mom-ness at this point), when they both realize they’ve both been putting off watching Friday Night Lights for the same reason. Laura tempts Chris with the promise of much TV watching, and before he realizes what’s going on, Chris is betraying Reagan in the most mundane but still kind of tantalizing way imaginable. Almost as quickly as his little tryst begins, though, Reagan catches wind of Chris’s newfound friendship with Laura and grows suspicious that he’s having an affair. She invites Laura and her husband over for dinner, Laura spills the beans about the episode, and the story is pretty much over.
The resolution is almost as neat and tidy. Reagan’s not necessarily angry that Chris watched an episode of television without her; she’s reacting to the fact that he has all these inside jokes with the other moms, and she feels like her position as Chris’s de facto best friend is being threatened. It would have been nice if the build to that cathartic moment would have been given more room to breathe — letting Reagan’s suspicions deepen, or not have Laura give up the information so readily — but like I said last week, this isn’t a high-stakes sitcom. It saves its playful moments for the pleasant times, like when Reagan and Chris toss the football around at the end. As long as the Ava stuff can provide the outrageous comic relief (which it totally can), the Reagan-Chris stories can keep the show grounded. (And speaking of grounded, props to Up All Night for actually using the season-five DVDs as the prop and not just some generic box.)