Friday, September 16, 2011

"Up All Night" is the worst television show of all time

I TiVoed the first episode of the new NBC television program "Up All Night" because one of its stars, Will Arnett, appeared in what is one of the best television shows of the last ten years, "Arrested Development." He was also a star of "Running Wilde," which, while not nearly as good as "AD," was still an intermittently funny program with a unique sensibility. Another of "Up All Night's" stars, Christina Applegate, was one of the stars of "Married... With Children," which is justifiably considered a classic. Since "Married," Ms. Applegate has appeared in some unappealing stuff, but I thought the combination of her and Mr. Arnett warranted giving this show a chance.

"Up All Night" was an interesting show, and definitely worth watching. But only because of its massive, almost fascinating failures as entertainment.

The show features boring, married narcissists who have a child and then become even more boring and narcissistic. The husband (Mr. Arnett) decides to quit his job as some kind of attorney so that he can stay home all day with the new baby. The wife (Ms. Applegate) works as a producer of a daytime talk show, and she does not quit her day job, although she feel a mixture of guilt and resentment about that (this is what passes for "complicated" on this show). This couple lives in a large, clean, fabulous Los Angeles-area home full of sleek, modern appliances.

Somehow, the creators of this program intended the viewer to feel sympathy for these people. Human beings have been having children for literally millions of years. They get on with their lives because they have to. Most people, even today in an America that is more affluent than any other country in the history of civilization, have to get on with their lives when they have children. They don't have the luxury of leaving a high-paying professional job so that they can spend idle daytime hours watching hockey or playing MMO games while the baby sits on their lap. In one alleged joke, the father is so flustered by the demands of parenthood that he spends a half hour looking for cheese in the grocery store. Is that endearing? If so, which part? The part about the new child making this former attorney so helpless that he can't find cheese in a grocery store, or the part about this wealthy, privileged man having the time to waste roaming up and down the aisles looking for cheese?

Ms. Applegate's character fares no better. Upon her return from maternity leave, she is greeted with grateful relief by her co-workers and the host of the show she produces. Apparently, the talk show has been lost without her amazing producing skills. How does she prove her worth? She books a quack doctor who sells some kind of "cleanse" technique. How on earth was she able to get a doctor to talk about his cleansing? Those people are hard to get to go on television.

Later in the show, the parents, who have exhibited no skill as parents and have done absolutely nothing to justify either the fatigue they affect, nor their congratulatory attitude, decide to go out and get drunk and stupid for their anniversary, the way they used to do. You know, before the burden of their one single baby that one of them was able to quit his high-paying job and spend the entire day with. That same single baby for which they can call a babysitter (do you suppose that babysitter turned out to be a Mexican immigrant who was paid sub-minimum wage under the table? the babysitter is never shown, so we don't know) on the spur of the moment so that they can have an undeserved night on the town. There follows a scene in which they spend several minutes singing karaoke. We're meant to laugh along with them as they sing "It's Raining Men."

Were the creators of this show so exhausted from dealing with their own little burdens of joy that they couldn't bring themselves to at least create funny situations for their unlikable characters?

One of the show's running gags involves the parents being so overwhelmed with love and affection for their progeny (and the fact that they've procreated -- something that, as I've already mentioned, has been done millions of times before) that they are unable to control their use of profanity. "This baby is f*cking awesome," they say, or something like that. Because the vulgarities are necessarily bleeped (this is a prime-time major network show, after all), we, the audience, are protected from hearing them. In other words, the audience is infantilized. It's fitting, since only someone with a childish sensibility could find anything worthwhile in this show about adult babies who've been spoiled rotten. If the creators involved had any kind of self-awareness, they would realize that these characters are wholly unlikable, self-aggrandizing, and venal. We would be meant to laugh at them, not with them (as was the case with "Arrested Development"). Instead, we're meant to sympathize with fabulously wealthy and successful people who mirror the creators and network executives who put this show on the air. The people who can spend hours in a grocery store looking for cheese, or playing MMO games or watching hockey at home -- they've got nothing better to do; their lives are that carefree.

There is an old piece of advice to writers, "Write what you know." This is not a license to allow the creators of art to simply write about themselves and their own lives, and expect everyone else to be impressed. Instead, that piece of advice is a challenge. As the New Journalist Tom Wolfe put it:
The writing programs, where you get the Masters of Fine Art in writing, are always telling people to "write what you know." And students interpret that to mean your own life. Unless you're Count Tolstoy, there's not that much in your own life. I'd be out with a cup if I had to write surely what's based on my own life. But in the 19th century, where there were so many great realistic novelists, they understood. You had to go outside of your own life to get new material. Even Dostoevsky, we think of him being such an internal, psychological creative force. When he wanted to write about the student radicals of his era, he went to the archives. And then started going -- he'd hear about a meeting of some of these groups, he'd go attend, to just get the material. Dickens was, of course, famous for this. Zola did it just time after time after time, going to a new area of life. He wanted to get all of France into a series of novels, and he pretty well did. He'd go from farming to warfare, to whatever he thought he really hadn't covered yet.
The idea of a sympathetic comedy about a non-professional couple -- perhaps she works as a cashier at Wal-Mart, and he works some kind of light industrial job -- living somewhere in "flyover country," would not occur to the people who are now making modern corporate entertainment. It's completely alien to them, and they have no curiosity about how most of the country lives. They're too interested in examining their own reactions to things that have happened millions of times before to even care. They're like the high school kid who falls in love for the first time: "No one has ever felt like this before."

How many scripted shows today aren't about people who work in either medicine, law enforcement, or entertainment? How many scripted shows today don't take place in a major city, either New York or LA, or some stand-in? To those people who are now creating scripted television shows: If you've ever wondered why "American Idol" is consistently the highest-ranked show on television, why there is so much anticipation for the upcoming "X Factor," and why it is that the ratings for American football continue to grow, you need look no further than the first episode of "Up All Night."

Bonus: Here's the only "Up All Night" you need, Boomtown Rats's classic song:

1 comment:

TheAxisOfPie said...

I agree with you. This is probably the first show that I've seen that was so bad I had to google the topic to be sure it wasn't just my personal nightmare.