'Up All Night' and 'Suburgatory': Time to pick a lane

up-all-night-suburgatory.jpg "Up All Night" and "Suburgatory" were two of the better-reviewed new comedies at the start of this season. They've been drawing pretty consistent ratings so far, which suggests that the people who watch both shows are, for the most part, sticking around.

I'm one of those people. It's my job to watch TV, but these are two shows I'd likely be watching anyway. For the most part, they've delivered at least one big laugh per episode (along with several good medium-sized ones). "Suburgatory's" Jane Levy is one of the real finds of the season, and pros Christina Applegate and Will Arnett have pretty excellent chemistry as new parents on "Up All Night."

Now here comes the "but": Both shows, which are about a third of the way through their first seasons ("Up All Night" has aired nine episodes, "Suburgatory" seven) are still having trouble deciding whether they want to live in slightly heightened but mostly realistic worlds or in a funhouse-mirror reality. When they waver between those two ideas -- as both shows did on Wednesday (Nov. 16) -- it does a disservice to both.

Both styles can work for shows, and sometimes they can even co-exist within the same series  (see "Cougar Town" at its best, some of Michael Scott's cringier "Office" moments and the flights of fancy "How I Met Your Mother" sometimes takes). But "Up All Night" and "Suburgatory" don't quite seem to have cracked the code yet.

As other critics have noted, the problem tends to occur in the work stories on "Up All Night." Reagan's (Applegate) job as producer of a talk show does give the show some license to go a little bigger, and Maya Rudolph is very good at playing larger-than-life characters, which she does here as talk-show host Ava.

Rudolph and the show's writers have actually brought Ava down to earth a little more in recent weeks -- on Wednesday, the jarring tonal shift rested not with her but with Jennifer Hall as perpetually scared assistant Missy and guest star Molly Shannon as the incompetent staffer Nancy.

The first blowup from Missy mistakenly thinking she was fired? Insane, but funny -- you sort of suspected Missy was on the verge of a meltdown. Her second tantrum, however, was just silly, not least because the person announcing the firing was Arnett's Chris, who has zero authority. And Nancy was such an over-the-top screwup that it was really hard to see that even a baby-softened Reagan could see the value in keeping her around.

"Suburgatory" is a more deliberately cartoonish world. Levy's teenage Tessa has been dragged pouting and snarking from New York City to the 'burbs, so her initial view of Chatswin as a brightly lit house of horrors makes perfect sense.

But now that she and dad George ( Jeremy Sisto) have been there a few months, it feels like Tessa, who as the show's narrator is our way into the world, should replace the chip on her shoulder with a slightly smaller one, and in turn the show should start painting some of its supporting characters as more recognizably human.

Cheryl Hines' Dallas has taken a couple steps in that direction -- her heart is usually in the right place, even if her methods can be a little suspect -- and Alan Tudyk's smarmy cosmetic dentist at least knows he's kind of a clown.

For a while on Wednesday, it looked as though Dallas' daughter Dalia ( Carly Chaikin) was on the way to being humanized as well. Yes, she steamrolled Tessa's every suggestion about the sweet 16 party, but she also ended up putting together what looked like a pretty fun soiree.

At least, that is, until she turned away Tessa's only two real friends and told Tessa to go with them if she didn't like it. Dalia has had scarcely a single moment so far this season to make her a relatable or sympathetic character, but she's also not out-and-out mean enough to be a proper nemesis for Tessa.

There's still considerably more good and bad in both "Suburgatory" and "Up All Night." Both shows have earned full-season orders, so they also have some more time to find that elusive balance. Here's hoping it happens sooner than later, though.
Photo/Video credit: NBC, ABC