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Seemingly plagued from the very start, NBC’s Up All Night was dealt perhaps its harshest blow on Friday, as news broke that one of its stars, Christina Applegate, would be leaving, citing the ever-nebulous “creative differences.” This info comes less than a month after series creator Emily Spivey exited, citing similar issues, and clearly, things aren’t looking good for the once-promising comedy. Though for anyone who’s followed the show’s tumultuous second season, Friday’s news was hardly a shock. Severe growing pains have seen it burn through three show runners in less than six months, plan a shift to a cheaper multi-camera format, and experiment with dramatic changes to the original premise. Somehow, the show managed to miraculously soldier through all these upheavals, but now, it seems Up All Night’s days are numbered. How did a series with such a great pedigree get to this point?

Like most pop culture/sitcom geeks, I was ecstatic upon discovering, in the summer of 2011, that Emily Spivey of Saturday Night Live fame had been asked to create her own half hour comedy for the Peacock Network.  Produced by Lorne Michaels and starring Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph, the show seemed like it would be great, and I prepared my DVR accordingly.

The original premise for Up All Night was based on Spivey’s fast–paced life as both a writer on SNL and the mother of a newborn. Juggling excruciatingly long workdays with the even longer hours of parenthood, the sitcom would also be an exploration of its lead character Reagan’s relentless, sometimes exhausting, need to have it all.  Yet, similar to the way Jaime Buchman on Mad About You had her Paul, Will Arnett would be there to provide chemistry and added zaniness as Reagan’s husband, a former lawyer and now stay-at-home dad. Maya Rudolph would play Ava, a coworker of Applegate.

However, at the last minute, perhaps because Bridesmaids blew up, or because the writers felt they were veering too closely to Mad About You territory, they decided to beef up Rudolph’s role, having Ava be an exaggerated, Oprah-like talk show diva. Applegate’s character would now be executive producer on her talk show, and have to cater to and assuage her moody boss the way Liz Lemon does Jack Donaughey, Tracy Jordan, and Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock. Sadly, this decision doomed the show before it ever hit the air, and despite Rudolph’s go-for-broke performance, Ava felt like she belonged on a completely different show.

Initially, the writers were  able to mine Ava’s story lines for comic gold, but even then, they felt incongruous with the main plots about Reagan, Chris and their baby. Great office scenes featuring Reagan and Ava, deliciously displaying the actresses’ hilarious chemistry, would be stifled by the presence of the talented but wasted Arnett. Most of the time, Chris would be saddled with pointless errands, conveniently forcing him to show up at Reagan’s work with the baby. Even worse, Ava was then pitted against the baby, Dynasty-style, in an ongoing plot that even Rudolph couldn’t pull off. What at first appeared to be a great amendment to the show ended up saddling the writers with the Sisyphean task of explaining how a celebrity and her world would ever collide, on such a regular basis, with such a “normal” family.

A wacky, demanding boss on 30 Rock worked because the show never really tried to be anything but a zany office comedy. Liz Lemon’s home life, while always fodder for jokes, never distracted from the main relationship on the show, the one between her and Jack.  By setting up a character like Ava, who is so outrageous, but who cannot be fully explored due to the show’s focus on family, the writers ultimately created a one-note joke as well. One that, despite Rudolph’s heroic efforts, could never go anywhere in this context.

It’s interesting, because Christina Applegate has some unique experience with this exact fate. Her previous starring vehicle, Samantha Who?, was fresh and funny at the beginning, telling the tale of a former bitch who, after hitting her head, ends up with total amnesia, and can’t believe she was ever that mean. Despite an amazing cast that included Jean Smart, a pre-fame Melissa McCarthy, and Jennifer Esposito, the show simply couldn’t keep that same joke running, nor was it able into evolve into something else, and it was axed after two seasons. Even Applegate’s two Emmy nominations couldn’t save it.  The presence of brilliant comedic stars is simply not enough if a show suffers from a gimmicky premise and an inability to set a clear tone.  Up All Night tried everything from randomly introducing a live-in brother, Brady Bunch-style, to dropping the whole “Ava Show” aspect, all in an effort to find it’s voice.

And of course, now if NBC actually proceeds with it without Applegate, things will just be that much harder.

After the flop of 2010’s Running Wilde, and now this, it’s time for Arnett to try something other than a boy/girl chemistry sitcom. He shines brightest on shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock, as an oddball douchebag fighting other men for power. He needs to be part of all male ensembles, – perhaps comedic versions of David Mamet plays? Applegate would do best to take Rudolph and see if Melissa McCarthy would stop slumming it on Mike and Molly, and then all of them should play bitchy executives who HATE children and live in NYC. There’s a show for Emily Spivey to write!

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