Getting out the tool kit for TV shows

As Jaime Weinman explains, there are minor renovations and there are gut jobs. Welcome to Up All Night.

Colleen Hayes/NBC/Getty Images

If you’re tired of TV shows being treated as high art, take heart: networks are bringing back the “retool,” the crass commercial method of changing everything about a show. Up All Night, starring Canadian comic Will Arnett alongside Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph, is a show whose constant retoolings have made more news than the show itself, culminating in the announcement that it will add a studio audience—the first show to make this change in a decade. Lee Goldberg, a writer-producer for such heavily retooled shows as Diagnosis Murder (and creator of the novel series The Dead Man) says shows are revised for many reasons: “budget concerns, political issues, previous series commitments, lack of enthusiasm or support at the network.” But, he adds, the primary reason for a retool is summed up in two words: “pure desperation.”

TV has been retooling shows since it began, and in the old days, networks didn’t care if the changes made sense. When Valerie Harper was fired from her self-titled show in the ’80s, Chip Keyes, the show runner, recalls that he was ordered to start writing scripts for a new character who could turn out to be “a sexy aunt, a funny grandma, a sexy grandma, a cousin on the run from the law . . . it was wide open.” But this kind of tinkering became less common in recent years as TV was taken more seriously and fans became more engaged. “Today’s viewers are, on average, much more aware of the mechanics of TV production,” explains Jason Mittell, associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College. “Switches are going to be much more noticed.” Shows like Lost were likely to make subtle changes rather than wholesale revisions.

But with Up All Night, it’s once again possible to watch a TV network openly meddle with a show. After the original pilot, NBC transformed Rudolph’s character from a generic best friend into an Oprah-like talk show host, hoping to cash in on her success in the movie Bridesmaids. This season, NBC changed the jobs of all three leads and added a new one, a previously unknown brother for Applegate’s character. Finally, producer Lorne Michaels proposed putting it in front of an audience.

Other recent retools have been almost as blatant. Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, an innocuous family sitcom in its first season, returned last month as a political show in the vein of All in the Family, with characters arguing over whether to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Even hits are being retooled at the behest of their producers: the first season of FX’s American Horror Story took place in a modern-day haunted house, but the second season moved to a haunted mental institution in 1964, and the creators announced that every season would focus on new characters. Still, these changes are more common among struggling shows. The drama Fairly Legal came back for a second season with a new leading man for its beautiful mediator heroine, but got cancelled anyway.

Why do networks mess with failing shows instead of just cancelling them? It might be that in an era when most shows have low ratings, they are reluctant to cancel a show with a promising cast. “I understand why NBC is trying hard to make Up All Night work,” says Keyes. “They do have three huge comedy talents.” It may make business sense to take an existing show and tweak it, instead of bringing in a new show that might also fail.

Sometimes a retool can drive fans away instead of attracting new ones. Fans of Last Man Standing reacted in disgust to the political tone and the recasting of a major character. On the other hand, Fringe, which will air its final episode in January, went through what Goldberg calls “the most radical retooling ever” in its change from a clone of The X Files to a serialized drama, and most fans liked the show better. But most of the time, a retool changes a show nobody watches into another show nobody watches. “Perhaps the most startling case of retooling was a series called Klondike,” says Goldberg. “The network thought it was a chilly locale. The show went off the air for two weeks. When it came back it was Acapulco. Didn’t fare any better in a warmer climate.”

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