The Spool / Reviews
Good tunes, great actors lift Up Here
Hulu’s rom-com musical period piece makes sweet music out of a tiresome subgenre.
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Hulu’s rom-com musical period piece makes sweet music out of a tiresome subgenre.

There’s a subset of “Will they or won’t they?” stories that are perhaps best described as “They will, then they won’t, then they will again, then they won’t again, and so on.” There are certainly fans of this kind of story. Arguably the most popular sitcom of the past 40 years, Friends, had Ross and Rachel bouncing together and apart repeatedly. Hulu’s new musical series Up Here is the latest example of that rom-com subset of a subset.

As someone predisposed not to enjoy such plotlines, it put the series at a bit of a disadvantage. However, its performers, setting, and, especially, music do plenty to push it beyond the subgenre’s often frustrating strictures. Yes, it is a “They will, then they won’t, then they will again, then they won’t again, and so on.” Thankfully it brings so much more to the table.

Up Here (Hulu)
Mae Whitman hears out Sophia Hammons, Kate Finneran, and John Hodgman. (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

Lindsay (Mae Whitman) is a nice Vermont girl on the precipice of having her whole life set in 1999. She lives and works with her dentist fiancé Ned (George Hampe). They have a lovely house, a cute routine, and a lot of clothes that nicely match one another. But then, Lindsay wins a short story contest. Ned’s response—happy for her but mildly dismissive—makes it impossible to pretend her upper New England small-town life fits anymore. In short order, she dumps Ned and runs off to New York City to claim her contest prize and become a writer. Unfortunately, it turns out the Big Apple isn’t an instant dream factory, despite being the greatest city on Earth.

Meanwhile, in the underrated New York City borough of Queens, Miguel (Carlos Valdes) strives to make it in the world of high finance. Unfortunately, his disposition—and he suspects his ethnicity and socioeconomic status—mean he doesn’t fit in with his bro-y colleagues. Still, his goals, including a unit in an exclusive luxury condo building and general financial stability, feel like motivation enough. He doesn’t love his current life, but the life he left behind, creating a video game with his friends, proved too painful and too low paying.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that these strivers are unsatisfied. Nonetheless, both try to convince themselves satisfaction is just around the corner. Lindsay will write her book, and it’ll magically fix everything. Miguel will achieve associate at the firm, and it’ll make all the discomfort worth it.

[Up Here]’s performers, setting, and, especially, music does plenty to push it beyond the often frustrating strictures of that kind of storytelling.

Besides the messy status of their lives and dreams, what’s happening in their heads links them. Like a pair of in their prime Gen X Hermans (of Herman’s Head, natch), Miguel and Lindsay walk around the world with a collection of personified voices in place of a single internal monologue. For Miguel, there’s his always proud AND always warning him away from lust and love mother Rosie (Andrea Burns). Joining her are Renee (Emilia Suárez), a former teen crush who mostly reminds him of his dork past, and Orson (Scott Porter), an alpha male type whose connection to Miguel shouldn’t be spoiled. Lindsay is trailed by her “appearing happy is better than being happy” mother Joan (Kate Finneran) and her constantly worried about contamination father Tom (John Hodgman). Finally, a former best friend, Celeste (Sophia Hammons), who revealed Lindsay’s pubescent sexual fantasy to everyone, rounds out the trio.

These figures are manifestations of all Lindsay and Miguel’s insecurities, traumas, and terrible external feedback. They’re also, thankfully, very funny. Somewhat surprisingly, Miguel’s trio ends up more dynamic, with Porter, in particular, snagging the spotlight. The veteran actor, perhaps best known for Friday Night Lights, is a ton of fun playing a libidinous narcissist whose self-esteem often appears moments away from being punctured. Finneran and Hodgman are good as Lindsay’s parents turned mental scolds, but it’s only when we meet “real-life” current mom that the character comes together.

Up Here (Hulu)
Scott Porter offers Carlos Valdes a type of support. Sort of. (Sarah Shatz/Hulu)

Whitman is predictably strong here. After Good Girls, it’s clear she has loads of talent that Up Here taps well. She also gets to play on her comedic gifts, demonstrating an aptitude for physical comedy that wasn’t necessarily on display in Arrested Development or The DUFF. Valdes, on the other hand, is a delightful surprise. For those that predominantly know him from his role on The Flash TV series and its related spinoffs, he’s using all kinds of gears that part never let him tap. It isn’t that he’s bad on that show. It’s just that it never gives you an indication of his full range.

As a couple, they’re not as revelatory. Their meet-cute outside a bar bathroom has an appealing rhythm. Soon after, their first sexual encounter is believable, has some heat, and ends on a nicely timed emotional gut punch. However, the chemistry goes a bit inert once they move into dating. That likely has much to do with the aforementioned on-again, off-again plotting the series insists on. Others less put off by that story element might still detect their spark.

These deficiencies, however, are made easy to ignore thanks to the songs from the Frozen wife-husband team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. They have nothing here as earworm-y as “Let It Go” or even “Into The Unknown.” However, all the songs they wrote are clever storytelling tunes that fit well. It’s the difference between making a musical (albeit across eight episodes) versus writing a couple of songs seeking a huge breakout.

Up Here (Hulu)
Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes concentrate on each other. (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

The directors, including Tom Kail (of the Disney+ broadcast of Hamilton), Kimmy Gatewood (a sitcom journeywoman director who also acted in GLOW), and Rachel Raimist, are similarly solid. There is some variation in the skill at capturing the sense of a musical, but largely the team is equal to the task. A highlight worth looking out for is a song and dance scene featuring Broadway mainstay Brian Stokes Mitchell playing a genial but kinky children’s book author who mocks Valdes in a fantasy sequence.

Despite this critic’s pre-existing distaste for the “They will, then they won’t, then they will again, then they won’t again, and so on” approach, the show works. The strong performance, well-done songs, and intelligent direction prove enough to overcome my own “allergy” to the subgenre. The promise of another season, delivered via cliffhanger, doesn’t necessarily thrill. Nonetheless, taken on its own, Up Here is a treat.

Up Here starts belting it out on Hulu March 24.

Up Here Trailer: