We all have voices inside our head. For most of us, it’s our own voices that scream the loudest. For Lindsay (Mae Whitman, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), it’s a little bit different. Following her around are her biggest critics: her mother (Katie Finneran), her father (John Hodgman), and her middle school best friend (Sophia Hammons).
They interject throughout the day, burying Lindsay’s true aspirations under a mess of insecurity. However, when she discovers she has won a writing contest, she leaves her goober hubby (George Hampe) and quiet life in Vermont to move to New York City on the cusp of Y2K. It’s a new lease on life, but her inner voices follow along.
Thus begins Up Here, the new musical comedy series from a plethora of musical giants: co-creator Steven Levenson (Tick, Tick…Boom!), songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (WandaVision, Frozen), and even Hamilton director Thomas Kail. With a fun central conceit and lots of talent both on and off-camera, the stage is set for what could have been a breakout hit.
However, the show’s commitment to formulaic romance and shallow pop tunes keeps things fairly forgettable. It’s a charming show, one that is anchored by two genuine lead performances, but lacks a sharp creative vision to make the most out of its disparate parts.
Soon after arriving in the city, Lindsay meets Miguel (Carlos Valdes, The Flash), a fledgling investment banker that comes with his own fair share of voices: his doting mother (Andréa Burns), his savage high school ex (Emilia Suárez), and the man he caught sleeping with his most previous girlfriend (Scott Porter). The two fall for each other, but find that their own emotional baggage keeps them from being able to properly connect.
Despite being set in the 90’s, the messaging is admittedly timely––social media has made all of us more self-absorbed and emotionally stunted than ever––but much of the show’s romantic drama feels repetitive and contrived. Whitman and Valdes imbue their characters with equal parts wit and weight, tackling the subject matter earnestly. However, the will-they-won’t-they quickly becomes tired, especially when the resolutions are easy to predict.
What feels even more disappointing is the show’s less-than-inventive use of its inner voice characters, many of whom get little screen time to explore not only their characters but their effect on the main duo. The one that gets the most time is the aforementioned home wrecker, Orson, an outrageous alpha male who convinces Miguel to bring out his worst toxic masculine tendencies. Scott Porter is a comedic talent, but the joke becomes well-worn.
Katie Finneran, an accomplished comedic stage actress, is also given dimension as not only Lindsay’s critical mother during her childhood, but also her mother in the present. One moment featuring both versions of the character is a series highlight and showcases the potential of incorporating these characters as more prominent comedic and dramatic foils.
On the flip side, Miguel’s mother, Rosie, is compressed into the archetypal over-loving helicopter parent with little else to contribute to Miguels’ development. We learn that she passed away when Miguel was 10, but we never get to see the impact she had on his development. Similarly, comedy legend John Hodgman feels totally wasted on Lindsay’s father, a milquetoast mortician. The fact I am struggling to find words to describe the character as I write this review should illustrate his lack of characterization. In a better show, these characters would have been used far more deliberately, but they remain as monuments of wasted potential.
The Lopez duo provide many songs for the series, many of which feature melodic earworms and amusing modern sensibilities. The two know how to write a fun tune, but much of the music doesn’t service the plot in any meaningful way. It feels reminiscent of the empty pop stylings of Pasek and Paul, another beloved songwriting duo, whose songs feel more attuned to radio play than musical theater storytelling.
The entire ensemble have strong voices, featuring the occasional musical theater icon (Brian Stokes Mitchell, Micaela Diamond, Norm Lewis), and many of the dance numbers are a joy to watch. However, a lot of it also feels like the creative team attempting to make a low-budget show feel like something bigger than it is.
Sporting a clean digital look with a soft-R-rated raunch along the lines of Ted Lasso, Up Here feels like it’s attempting to be in touch with what other popular television shows are doing. However, the actual meat and potatoes of the show’s story feel too half-baked to support all of its creative novelty. One has to appreciate the efforts to bring an honest-to-god modern musical to television (outside of pastiches like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Schmigadoon!), but the show’s surface level sheen will likely leave little impression on even the most interested viewers.
All episodes of Up Here are now available to stream on Disney+.