We've seen an uptick in big swings in the realm of musical romantic comedy lately, from the barbed and daring Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the light and bubbly Schmigadoon! This month, Hulu is hauling out the big guns for its foray into this particular genre, harnessing the talents of the award-winning married pair Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for Up Here. And despite a few bum notes, the eight-episode series demonstrates why musical comedy can be such a welcome part of the TV landscape.
The premise seems simple enough: Lindsay (Mae Whitman) lives a humdrum suburban life with her nice but boring fiancé, but when she wins a short story contest, she suddenly has a chance at the dreams she's always been too timid to pursue. She takes a risk, dumps the fiancé, and moves to New York City, with all the romance that entails (until you see the size of your apartment).
In one of the show's big formal concepts, Lindsay is plagued by a Greek chorus of negative nellies that take the form of her mom (Katie Finneran), dad (John Hodgman), and childhood best friend (Sophia Hammons), who have been urging her to play it safe and be unassuming and likable her whole life. The other big formal gesture sets the show in 1999, a conceit that only really asserts itself in the lack of smartphones and a near-constant invocation of the impending Y2K bug.
In New York, Lindsay moves into a literal closet and struggles to find her rhythm until she meets a sweet, handsome, low-level investment banker named Miguel (Carlos Valdes). They hit it off — like "making out and doing hand stuff on the first night" hitting it off — until Miguel has a tearful freakout and has to leave. That's when we discover that Miguel has his own Greek chorus of self-doubt, comprising his late mother (Andréa Burns), his high-school girlfriend (Emilia Suarez), and the guy his college sweetheart cheated with (Scott Porter).
The Lopezes have had Up Here in the works for years, and in that time, they’ve attained A-list status in the industry. He's an EGOT winner whose Broadway hits include Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and together, they won Oscars for writing the songs for Frozen and Coco, as well as an Emmy for the WandaVision song "Agatha All Along.” Their personal story also echoes the one they're presenting on screen. They first met in 1999 at a musical theater workshop, and they originally developed Up Here as a stage show in 2015.
In that incarnation, the show was focused on the male half of the romance and the voices in his head. In the ensuing eight years and the transition to television, Up Here has become an equal split between its two leads, to its great benefit. Whitman and Valdes are both tremendously charming and talented, and the two-handed nature of the narrative balances them quite well. Whitman, best known for her roles on Arrested Development, Parenthood, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, has dabbled in music in her career, but not musical theater. She turns out to be quite good, with a voice that recalls Kristen Bell, if you're looking for a comparison from within the House of Lopez. Valdes, meanwhile, is primarily known for playing sidekick Cisco Ramon on The Flash, even though he does have a musical theater background. The two of them are wonderful together, with a sharp and sexy chemistry that often cuts through the show's occasionally airy ideas about love and relationships and New York City.
The major theme, repeated in the show's opening number as well as the opening credits, is whether you can truly know someone, even if you're in love. Given the chaotic nature of the voices that Lindsay and Miguel have in their heads, making them second-guess and panic over every romantic instinct, it's hard to argue with the thesis. And yet Whitman and Valdes believably communicate that there’s something between their characters that can fight through that cacophony. When they first hook up, Lindsay tells him he can choose not to listen to whatever's yammering at him, and while it eventually disturbs him that she can so accurately describe his inner demons, that insight becomes a bond.
Despite Lindsday’s insistence, however, neither of them ever stop listening to their self-doubts. Part of this is endemic to the show's premise, that the voices in your head and your inability to access the voices in your beloved's head will have you constantly screwing things up. But it becomes wearying, waiting for the next petty misunderstanding to break these two gorgeous and likable people up just so they can get back together in the next episode.
Somewhere in the middle of these strengths and weaknesses are the songs. The Lopezes know what they're doing when it comes to crafting music that reveals character and advances an emotional arc. They've got plenty of support for their efforts, too, from director Thomas Kail (Hamilton, Fosse/Verdon) to choreographer Sonya Tayeh to a bevy of Broadway-seasoned supporting performers. Finneran is a Tony winner in her own right, as is guest star Brian Stokes Mitchell. Andréa Burns was in the original Broadway production of In the Heights, and John Hodgman has put his limited but effective singing voice to work in movies like Coraline.
With such an all-star collection of talent, it's almost disappointing that the musical numbers are mostly just pretty good. They’re certainly never as memorable as the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show which remains untouched at the top of the mountain of 21st-century musical comedy on TV. If they're not exactly earworms, though, the numbers at least give Whitman and Valdes a chance to dig deeper into their characters. Given its slightness, the series might benefit from Hulu’s binge release, as well as offering a respite as we head into the thick of Emmy bait season. Up Here may be a charming trifle, but lightweight charm is something this genre is designed to provide.
Up Here premieres its entire first season on March 24 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.