How ‘Up All Night’ Went Wrong

Yesterday, word came out that NBC, which already renewed Up All Night in the face of low ratings and overhauled the family sitcom’s core premise, will put the the single-camera comedy on hiatus again and bring it back as a multi-camera show taped in front of a live studio audience. I wish I thought that would help. When it debuted last fall, Up All Night, which was created by a woman, had a high proportion of female writers, and was a smart take on fathers staying home to raise children, was one of the shows I wanted most to turn out to be wonderful. But every step of the way, Up All Night‘s doubled down on its worst elements rather than recognizing what its strengths are. The number of cameras doesn’t seem to be at the heart of where Up All Night‘s gone wrong.

There’s no question that family sitcoms can be popular even when the families they put on screen are richer, and cooler, and better-looking than our own. But the charm of a show like Modern Family, when it works, is that it emphasizes that no matter how gorgeous Jay and Gloria’s house is, no matter how little Phil’s real estate business seems to have been impacted by the recession, their emotional and familial problems (if not their financial ones) seemed rather similar to our own. Up All Night, by contrast, took a family that already wasn’t much like our own, from Reagan’s job in the entertainment business, to their sprawling, gorgeous California home, and made them seem even less relateable.

Increasingly, Reagan and Chris seem more like irritating hipster archetypes than actual people. One of the running jokes on the show has been their irritation with a squarer neighbor couple, Gene and Terry, who had a child around the same time that they did. I can see how Gene and Terry’s enthusiasm could seem grating, complicating Reagan and Chris’s attempts to retain their pre-baby identity as a cool couple. But that cool-couple posturing actually comes across as a great deal more irritating than anything Gene and Terry get up to, and disproportionately mean, as a result. It’s one thing to show your main characters having the kind of night out on the town Regan and Chris regularly enjoyed before they had Amy. It’s quite another, as in one recent example, to watch Reagan make an utter fool of herself trying to seem cool at a coffee shop full of younger consumers. New Girl recently pulled off a joke like this beautifully in an episode where Schmidt fell all over himself trying to impress his new hipster neighbors, but the show balanced it by making the kids themselves as ludicrous as Schmidt’s posturing. But in Up All Night, Reagan just came across as ridiculous and desperate. More and more, I’m finding myself not sympathetic to Reagan and Chris but repulsed by their pettiness.

That’s part in parcel with an odd tonal decision the show’s made in the wake of the decision to cancel Ava’s talk show at the beginning of the first season. I initially praised that move because it seemed like an attempt to deescalate the show’s slightly more hyperreal elements and to focus clearly on what Up All Night does best: getting at the pleasure and anxiety that comes with accepting that being a parent is the most important part of your identity. Instead, the show subbed in Chris’ brother as comic relief rather than Ava’s shows, and in having Chris go back to work, albeit as a contractor, jettisoned the most interesting perspective Up All Night had to offer: what it means for a man to experience the same loss of identity and expectation that he’ll live his whole life through his child that women are excepted to accept without complaint every day. That was genuinely novel and often movingly executed (unlike the crude approach of network-mate Guys With Kids), letting Will Arnett be something other than the crazy-eyed nut he’s so often pigeonholed as.

I miss that show, and Jason Lee, marvelously down-to-earth as Ava’s boyfriend. Up All Night seems to assume that his work as a contractor was the interesting bit of his character, rather than his essential decency, his flashes of temper and frustration with Ava’s ridiculousness. That’s the kind of character you could build a show around, using a regular guy perspective to humanize characters who live their lives at a greater distance from the average American experience. And when Reagan was working on Ava’s show, she filled that role herself. Up All Night has opted to do the reverse, having rarified people treat everyday life as if it’s hard or distastefully uncool. And it’ll have trouble when it goes in front of a live audience if the viewers are laughing at Chris and Reagan instead of with them.