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Oprah Twin Pops ‘Up All Night,’ Azaria Cries in ‘Agents’: Review

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"Up All Night"
Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in "Up All Night" which previews Wednesday on NBC at 10 p.m. New York time. Photographer: Trae Patton/NBC via Bloomberg

Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Behold the power of Oprah.

Maya Rudolph modifies her celebrated “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of the talk show queen for NBC’s promising new sitcom “Up All Night.”

She isn’t the series’ main focus -- Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, both excellent, share the spotlight -- but Rudolph’s Winfrey-esque character is fine support.

That should surprise critics and TV insiders who saw an early version of “Up All Night” previewed by NBC last spring. Rudolph’s cartoonish public relations executive in that pilot has been excised from the version airing this week, replaced with a toned-down version of her Oprah parody.

The change suits the show.

Aiming for the balance of edgy sophistication and sentimentality all but perfected by ABC’s “Modern Family,” “Up All Night” stars Applegate and Arnett as married professionals. She works for the talk show, he’s a stay-at-home editor. Their well-ordered lives are upended by the smiley face appearing on a home pregnancy test stick.

Diaper changes are no funnier now than they were for “Three Men and a Baby,” but at least “Up All Night” dispatches the newbie-parent gags quickly.

Arnett (“Arrested Development,” “30 Rock”) downplays his usual shark-like intensity without turning the nervous dad into a babbling idiot. Applegate, a producer of the series (created by Emily Spivey), is charming and credible.

Where “Up All Night” goes once Amy starts sleeping till morning is anyone’s guess, but this cast is worth following.

“Up All Night” previews Wednesday on NBC at 10 p.m. New York time (regular time slot will be 8 p.m.). Rating: ***

‘Free Agents’

Alex (Hank Azaria) is a newly divorced guy who cries after sex. Helen (Kathryn Hahn), his coworker and occasional bedmate, swills booze as she pines for a dead fiance.

And it’s not even as funny as it sounds.

Set in a glitzy crisis-management public relations firm, “Free Agents” crams its half-hour pilot with more star-crossed vibes than the entire first season of “Cheers.” And yet it’s an oddly dismal affair.

Azaria has put his hound dog eyes and hangdog personality to better use elsewhere, and his lack of chemistry with the brittle Hahn promises little sizzle.

Based on a British sitcom, “Free Agents” staffs Alex’s fictional office with remarkably unappealing characters. Sassy, self-entitled assistant? Womanizing frat-boy lug? Horny nerd? Check, check and check, and time for a new job.

“Free Agents” previews Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. New York time (regular time slot is 8:30 p.m). Rating: *1/2

‘Long Distance Warrior’

AT&T’s potential acquisition of T-Mobile notwithstanding, the power once held by Ma Bell might be unfathomable to anyone who never stuck a finger in a rotary dial.

“Long Distance Warrior,” a persuasive, if staid, documentary airing on PBS World and other public stations this month, recalls a time when everyone got the joke behind Lily Tomlin’s dictatorial Ernestine the Operator bit. And when Bill McGowan made headlines.

Bill who? “Long Distance Warrior” calls McGowan “the most famous corporate leader you’ve never heard of,” and builds a strong case for his impact on the 21st century information age.

McGowan, who died in 1992, was the founder and chairman of MCI Communications, and the force behind the company’s decade-long battle to break up AT&T’s de facto telephone monopoly.

“Warrior” argues that McGowan’s obsession with opening the telephone industry to competition paved the way for everything from affordable long-distance to e-mail (the barely remembered MCI Mail was a pioneer in the field).

Directed by Sarah Holt for American Public Television, the film itself is workmanlike -- the usual mix of talking head interviews and old TV clips. Intensely private, workaholic McGowan’s personal life is barely explored, and his less-than-telegenic persona barely carries the hour.

“Long Distance Warrior” rests on his accomplishments, which proves just enough.

“Long Distance Warrior” airs tomorrow on PBS World at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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