Reagan and Chris split up this week, each owning a story that would probably be one of the first chapters in the paperback Stock Sitcom Stories: True Tales of Writers Who Used the Same Plot As Someone Else. Reagan deciding to host a charity auction to get Amy into a really snooty preschool that promises lifelong success? Party Down. Chris and his brother Casey acting pretty competitive with one another, too proud to admit when things aren’t going well? Arrested Development. Amy wears a cow hat and tiny cowboy boots with miniature spurs? The Internet.
The stories shared almost equal screen time, which left little time to develop either one fully. After Reagan and Chris visited Little Nudge preschool, marveling at its room covered entirely in Tempur-Pedic foam (the Swedish sleep system!), Reagan learned that hosting the school’s charity auction is the easiest way to ensure Amy’s acceptance aside from writing a large check. And not the hilarious oversize kind that make great gifts. Trust me and my legions of disappointed gift recipients on that one!
It isn’t until well into the episode that we catch any more of what’s going down, which is nothing. Reagan pulsed a few strings and got cool auction prizes like guitar lessons from Poison’s C.C. DeVille — cool is a relative term — and persuaded Ava to host (after already having volunteered her). The auction began, and a lot of money was made. Throw in a few lines from Missy about her rough Oakland upbringing, sprinkle in a nonintrusive moment when Chris and Casey got into a bidding war with money they don’t have, and … I suppose there are worse ways to kill eleven minutes.
The tone of Up All Night often strives for something along the lines of 30 Rock: Sane woman in an insane world, but really she’s a bit nuts too. The problem with “Preschool Auction” was that nobody was really that far out. The auctionees behaved themselves, and Ava’s drunkenness didn't interfere with her ability to host; in fact, it made her slightly more entertaining. Plus, the preschool itself didn't seem like the kind of place worth holding up on such a high pedestal. Sure they have a high acceptance rate to Ivy League schools, but in the posh-ish suburb where Reagan and Chris live, that’s not enough of a hook to drive someone to great lengths to get their kid in. Sure, if their kid drank wine and wanted to jump around a lot, it might be a suitable place. But this isn’t France (which is the kind of line I would write if I took my second grade understanding of what I know about French people and stopped learning anything else), and the only time the preschool admissions lady even remotely cracks is when she asks Reagan to bring celebrity friends by the campus. “They’re starfuckers,” Reagan and Ava decide together, and just like that Amy is headed to the neighborhood preschool instead. It’s a long way to go for a simple lesson, like if you were to isolate just one of the stories from Modern Family and tell it without intersecting with the other two.
Of course, it’s not a terrible thing that the story doesn’t go anywhere, because Up All Night is still a pleasant place to hang out. The characters all like each other and feel comfortable enough to poke fun at one another without taking any serious offense. It’s amazing how many sitcoms don’t have what is pretty much a prerequisite for anything decently successful and remotely critically beloved, and “Preschool Auction” is a gentle reminder that, yes, the foundation is certainly there.
Take the Chris and Casey story line — equally wheel-spinny, but sort of unexpectedly sweet by the end. The timing of the preschool auction lined up with a visit from Chris’s older brother, played by Dean Winters of 30 Rock’s Dennis Duffy fame. The casting is pretty spot-on, because it turns out Chris has this weird oneupsmanship thing happening with his brother, who eggs him on every chance he gets, whether it’s lifting more weights or talking more about how they’re “killing it” at work. They’re so blindly competitive that when driving back from the airport, Chris wound up in a discussion with Casey about how the last time they spoke, Chris was on track to be partner, and by the way how’s that all going? Chris lied, and all was fine for a moment. Later, though, Reagan overheared Casey on a frantic phone call, and he admitted that, well, he was laid off a year ago and hasn’t worked since. Both brothers are hiding from the other, and only Reagan knew the truth. How long would this world-shattering secret be bottled inside like so much Swede cologne? A few minutes.
Still, once they got over themselves and told the truth, they could have a completely competition-free moment on the basketball court. They talked to each other without trying to make anyone feel like a lesser man, and even shared an awkward dude side-hug. Casey shot a three-pointer, and Chris was actually happy to see his brother get this little triumph. It took a long time to get to this moment — and the economy is too tumultuous to support the sale of a psychedelic houseboat — but sometimes Up All Night is cool just racking up a few little victories.