We Don’t Need A New York ‘La La Land’

New York has played a main character in a number of wonderful TV shows, from Sex and the City and Broad City to Seinfeld and Friends. In fact, rarely ever does a show set in New York ignore the sweeping skylines, the bumbling subways, and the ever-juicy gossip whispered in crowded, dimly lit bars—each an alluring draw to almost every NYC-based show. Still, we may have found the series that elects to completely ignore such a captivating setting: Up Here, a dismally boring musical romantic comedy that takes place in late 1990s New York.

Hulu has brought La La Land to the Big Apple with their new series, but instead of changing the main setting (Up Here could really take place in Los Angeles, for all we know), the show strips itself of all charm and creativity. Remember when we all had “City of Stars” and “Someone in the Crowd” stuck in our heads in late 2016? Good luck trying to remember a single tune from Up Here. Even the intro music, which opens each of the eight episodes in Season 1, is criminally forgettable.

Up Here starts with a bare bones, basic love story. Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes) are two lonely strangers trying to survive in New York—and, hey, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. We begin with Lindsay’s side of the show. The tired housewife-to-be upends her life when she realizes her fiancé Ned (George Hampe) can’t offer her the excitement she wants. So, instead of pursuing a normal humdrum life in Vermont with two kids and TV dinners, Lindsay packs up everything she’s got and moves to New York City. She believes she just won a huge writing contest with a glorious cash prize; in fact, she won author of the week at a small bookstore that offers her a gift card and a job.

She meets Miguel at a bar with her model roommate—who, after offering Lindsay a closet as a place to sublet, vanishes from the plot entirely. The closet room, a small recurring joke, is one of the only two big New York allusions in the show, the other being crowded 1999 subway cars.

When Lindsay meets Miguel, he’s recovering from a similar heartbreak, having just cut things off with his girlfriend of several years after catching her cheating on him. Both having similar goals of taking advantage of their romanticized versions of the city (though Miguel’s lived there his entire life), they try to get down and dirty in the bathroom of the bar.

When a line prevents them from acting on their sexual urges, headstrong Lindsay forces a hesitating Miguel to take her back to his place. But as they start to disrobe, Miguel can’t, well, perform. Thanks to a quartet of fully-personified voices in his head, the poor guy can’t focus on his new love interest. He’s ashamed. What he doesn’t know is that Lindsay also has the voices—like her parents (Katie Finneran and John Hodgman), her ex-fiancé, and her childhood best friend (Sophia Hammons)—following her up and down the Lower East Side, weighing in on her every decision as she tries to get a job in publishing.

Miguel’s private thoughts are similarly interrupted by the voices of his parents (Andréa Burns and Teddy Cañez), a high school ex (Emilia Suárez), and the man he caught in bed with his girlfriend (Scott Porter). Each “voice” (read: backup singer and dancer) offers an inner monologue juxtaposed with the matter at hand. Miguel can’t perform sexually because his dead mother is in his ear telling him not to start a fling with this girl. While the talking/singing/dancing voices are certainly an original concept, it’s an idea that never pays off. The voices have no chemistry with their corresponding star. Instead of pushing the plot forward, they hold the leads back from each other.

This gets at the darker themes of Up Here: Miguel and Lindsay carry enormous amounts of baggage (don’t we all). So much, in fact, that they’re hesitant to pursue a future together, held back by fears brought from past relationships, their upbringing, and other small life dilemmas. Those undertones of self-doubt are what keep Up Here afloat, sending the strong message that getting over trauma isn’t as easy as finding a soulmate and seeking solace in them. It’s too bad Up Here gets too invested in this backstory to actually allow its leads to play off each other and keep the comedy aspect of the rom-com alive. When the pair sing together, it’s magical—but this only happens two or three times.

With tones that can switch from tearful to giddy in just a quick scene change, the off-the-wall musical bounces all over the place. One moment, Miguel is working through racism he’s faced growing up and in his workplace—just a minute later, he’s trying to bang Lindsay in a bathroom. And then just a second after that, his parents and high school ex lecture him about commitment in a hokey song while he rides the subway home.

This cascade of tonal snafus is perfectly illustrated in the careers of Miguel and Lindsay. While Lindsay spends almost the entire show shifting her idea for a novel—first it’s a creative essay about her youth, then a story about her awkward sexual encounter with Miguel, then she must stalk Miguel to see what other stories she can mine from the guy. Finally, she settles on a children’s book about an ugly squid who thinks she’s a squirrel. It takes us almost the entire season to see Miguel’s passion. He’s a video game designer who’s given up his dreams (because his ex worked at the same video game company) to become a banker. Is that why people moved to New York in 1999?

No, but Up Here has no grip on New York culture anyways. Though the idea for a musical rom-com set in New York sounds delightful, it’s a lofty task—people love Nora Ephron for her brilliant simplicity, her humble tales of love, great sweaters, and intimate moments in the Big Apple. Up Here is neither simple nor humble, nor can it be, because what on-screen musical is? The hustle and bustle of New York does not pair well with the starry-eyed musical rom-com. Save it for sunny Los Angeles.

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