Tuned In

Up All Night Gets Re-Re-Remodeled: Is It Time to Tear It Down?

Another retooling of a struggling sitcom in its second season raises the question: when have you changed a show so much that it isn't itself anymore?

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Gavin Bond/NBC

I’ve been more patient than most critics, and possibly most of you, with Up All Night. When it started out, it was like two sitcoms in one, which did not necessarily need to be occupying the same half-hour: a domestic sitcom (with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents) and a workplace/buddy sitcom (with Applegate and Maya Rudolph as her needy talk-show-hostess boss and best friend Ava). The laid-back marriage comedy didn’t mesh with the wackier office comedy. The pacing was often odd—it was sometimes light on jokes, but without the emotional punch that would justify that.

Yet I kept watching, because it was good enough often enough and because I thought it had the potential for better. The cast was excellent, not just Rudolph (who, when it debuted, was coming off the buzz of Bridesmaids) but sitcom pros Arnett and Applegate, not to mention supporting actor Jason Lee (since departed). I liked the matter-of-fact way it cast Arnett as a stay-at-home dad without belaboring the reversal of usual sitcom gender roles (compare, say, the irritating Guys with Kids). It felt, and has felt for a while, like a sitcom that was this close to being good.

NBC must feel the same—or feel the power of producer Lorne Michaels—because while the show had neither ratings nor widespread critical praise, it’s kept Up All Night on the schedule. But it’s been making changes, and is making more. This season, it scuttled the talk-show storyline and wrote in an eccentric brother for Applegate’s character Reagan, becoming more of a conventional hangout comedy. It sent Arnett’s Chris back to work as Reagan stayed at home with the baby.

This fall, it announced a big, and very unusual change. The show, which has been shot in the single-camera, movie-like style of sitcoms such as The Office or Modern Family (which allows for more location shots and doesn’t use a live audience), will go on hiatus and return in spring as a multicamera, live-audience comedy (shot on a set in front of a crowd in the manner of Friends or Whitney). Suddenly, as if to bring back fond memories of NBC sitcoms past, Sean Hayes is on the show. And this week, NBC announced that the comedy would get a new showrunner (for the second time): Linda Wallem, who most recently produced Showtime’s Nurse Jackie but has considerable network-comedy experience.

Critics like me have tended to favor single-camera sitcoms in recent years, but I don’t have anything inherently against multicamera, which has given TV some of its greatest and most popular shows ever. But it’s a format that works for a certain kind of show—one that relies more on jokes, repartee and funny lines more than situational humor and dramedy-like setups. I don’t see how Up All Night, as we’ve seen it, is that kind of show. NBC apparently disagrees; either the writing is going to change, or they see some kind of potential energy in the show’s existing scripts that it feels would really pop with the engagement of a studio audience.

It’s all possible, but it also feels like replacing so many parts of a car that nothing of the original model remains. (Or the old story of an antiques dealer trying to sell George Washington‘s original hatchet, while noting that both the handle and the head have been replaced over the years.) At some point, don’t you end up changing the thing so much that it’s no longer itself?

I’ll watch the retooled Up All Night when it returns anyway, out of curiosity—and I guess, at this point, because I’ve made an investment. Which is maybe how NBC feels too. But the fact that there’s a lot of talent involved in a show is not itself reason to prolong it. Maybe the new Up All Night will be more of a Friends-style comedy. Maybe it will be a zany parenting sitcom. Or maybe it’ll refocus more on Chris’ new home-contracting business.

If it’s that last option, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there. There comes a point where you’ve gut-renovated so many times that you should consider if the house is really the problem. Maybe it’s the neighborhood. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s time to tear it down and build something new from scratch.