The oral histories of failed TV shows

‘Fox and CBS may laugh at NBC, but they’re going to be NBC eventually’

Arrested Development – Huge Mistake from Russell Challenger on Vimeo.

Not every failed TV show deserves an oral history – strange as that may sound – but I’d read one for Up All Night, which seems to be one of the two shows that most epitomizes the weirdness of Bob Greenblatt’s tenure running NBC. The other one is Smash, Greenblatt’s highest-priority project and the one he seems to have been most invested in; its failure in the second season, coming on the heels of his statement that the first season was an “unqualified success,” may do the most to raise doubts about his track record picking scripted shows. Up All Night wasn’t as big a failure, and if the network had simply canceled it, it would just be another one of those shows that managed to survive for a second season but didn’t quite work out (along with Whitney and Harry’s Law and a few other shows the new NBC regime picked up). The constant retooling of the show, beginning as soon as the pilot was delivered, turned it into a joke, and has culminated in the insane recent series of stories where one by one, people abandon the show while the network tries to figure out how to keep it going in some form. The most recent story is that Will Arnett has accepted an offer to star in a CBS pilot from Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia. I don’t actually know if Arnett has what it takes to headline a show; certainly Running Wilde didn’t make him seem like a plausible lead. But how can CBS resist the temptation to stick a finger in NBC’s eye like that?

Making fun of NBC’s problems has been too easy for too long – I’ve done it, but I admit it’s too easy – and after all, their problems are simply an exaggerated version of the problems the whole TV industry is having: Fox and CBS may laugh at NBC, but they’re going to be NBC eventually. And Greenblatt still has one advantage over his predecessors, which is that an actual hit, The Voice, launched during his tenure, and he made a smart decision in bringing it back early. (Though he made a not-so-smart decision by trying to keep rolling out Go On and The New Normal after The Voice was on hiatus, apparently not realizing that they had no following without that show as a lead-in.) So it would be premature to talk about him as the new Ben Silverman; he’s clearly doing better than that.

What’s interesting about the Up All Night debacle is that it demostrates, in miniature, the distinctive thing about NBC scripted programming in the Greenblatt era: incredibly hands-on tinkering with shows on the creative level. Each of the retools to Up All Night could be justified intellectually – well, maybe not the idea that drove Applegate away from the show, the idea of turning it into a behind-the-scenes meta-comedy about the making of a television show, but most of the other ones. (Even the basic idea of turning it into a three-camera show, while it had no chance of making it into a hit, at least had the potential to help improve comedy development at NBC/Universal; until I heard about the crazy concept for the retool, I thought that was the point of it.) But there were just so many, and the retools were more obvious and heavy-handed than we were used to seeing on TV in some years. NBC under Greenblatt’s team has also become famous for losing or replacing showrunners: Up All Night, Smash, Community, Saved and many other projects have gone through a game of writer-producer musical chairs. It may reflect Greenblatt’s experience at Showtime, a cable network that was probably the least creator-oriented of the major premium cable outlets, and the most willing to replace creators and producers to fit the network’s vision of what the show should be.

But again, this is just a surreal cartoon version of what’s going on in the whole TV industry; networks are very hands-on now, and they’ve instituted certain controls – like staffing every show with several people who are fully qualified to run a show – to minimize the chance of a Mad Men situation where the creator is almost as irreplaceable as the lead actors. So what happened with Up All Night and Smash may simply be a canary in the coal mine about what’s going to happen to broadcast network television in general: more retooling, more replaced showrunners (sometimes, as on The Walking Dead, with no adverse effects on the ratings), more power invested in the networks as they attempt to preserve what’s left of their power. It’ll be fun.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.