Critic’s Notebook: ‘Up All Night’ and Other Shows Outgrowing Their Titles

November 30th, 2012

Colleen Hayes/NBC

Will Arnett in “Up All Night,” with a baby who is now walking (and maybe sleeping all night).

The folks behind “Up All Night” have it all wrong. It’s not the show’s format they should be worried about. It’s the title.

“Up All Night,” a decent NBC comedy about new parents (Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) that is now in its second season, announced last month that it intends to undergo a makeover. The series will switch from single camera to multiple camera (translation: it will look a lot different) and add a live audience. Not as big a change as, say, killing off all the characters and replacing them with penguins, but in the grand scheme of sitcomdom, still a moderately significant overhaul.

Published reports have suggested that the switch is being made either in search of better ratings or to take advantage of the stars’ adeptness at working a crowd. (Maya Rudolph, a “Saturday Night Live” alumna, is also in the cast.) But never mind all that. Has no one else noticed that the kid on this show is now walking?

The title of the series presumably invokes the notion that babies are the sworn enemies of sleeping people everywhere. That’s certainly true in the first year of a child’s life, and perhaps in the second. But at some point the urchin starts sleeping through the night. So should the series settle in for a long run, it is going to have a title that makes no sense, unless the writers force the central couple to have more kids.

Which brings us to today’s Frivolous Subject to Ponder on a Lazy Holiday Weekend: What other current series have shortsighted titles, and what shows of the past might have needed new names had they lingered longer than they did?

Among today’s shows, Fox’s “New Girl,” in which a fairly irritating character played by Zooey Deschanel moves in with three guys, needed another title within weeks. Something like, “Maybe You Ought to Start Looking for Your Own Place.” And should Fox’s “Raising Hope,” another baby-rearing show, have the good fortune to last 18 seasons, something else will obviously be in order. Perhaps, “Hey, Hope, Maybe You Ought to Start Looking for Your Own Place, the Way New Girl Did.”

It’s always a little dicey to peg a show title to the state of human knowledge, because a breakthrough or reassessment could be disastrous. That puts “The Big Bang Theory,” the long-running CBS comedy, in constant jeopardy. “The Big Bang Proven Fact” just doesn’t have the same ring. Someone at CBS should have realized this, because one of television’s earliest hit shows had this same problem: “Father Knows Best.” Had it not gone off the air just as the assumption-busting 1960s were getting nasty, it would almost certainly have ended up as “You Know, Father Doesn’t Really Know Squat.”

The ultimate offender at the moment, though, is CBS’s “Two and a Half Men.” The show has been on so long that it has had to swap one man for another — Charlie Sheen out; Ashton Kutcher in — but it has never figured out what to do about the increasingly incongruous “half.”

The young man that fraction refers to was 10 when the series began, back in the first administration of the second Bush presidency. Recently he joined the Army. An argument can be made, however, that Mr. Kutcher’s man-boy character now constitutes the “half” of the title, so maybe this one can go on as is indefinitely.

As a rule, though, if you’re naming a television show, avoid anything that assumes that a child doesn’t age. Just ask anyone associated with the beloved ABC series “Boy Meets World,” which started in 1993 with an adolescent and ended, after seven seasons, with him married. “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” had exceeded its title’s shelf life by the time it ended after seven seasons in 2003. It might have gone on, but presumably “Sabrina the 20-Something Witch” didn’t test well.

You wonder, too, about what might have been in store for other shows of the past, had inept execution or audience disaffection not led to their cancellation. “Menace” seems too mild, once a misbehaving child reaches a certain age; might we have had “Dennis the Juvenile Delinquent” and, ultimately, “Dennis the Paroled Felon”?

And what if “My Mother the Car,” an NBC comedy that was introduced in 1965 and gone by 1966, had found an audience? By now it would have been through all sorts of title changes to try to keep up: “My Mother the Minivan,” “My Mother the S.U.V.,” “My Mother the Hybrid.” Also, since it was about a talking car, it would have had to accommodate here in 2012 the existence of cars that actually do talk, not only to their drivers but to one another as well. “My Mother the Unusually Argumentative Car”?

Anyway, back to “Up All Night.” It seems from this brief survey that it is virtually impossible to come up with a name for a TV show that isn’t in danger of growing obsolete over time. So perhaps we should all just get used to a new normal (another show title on shaky ground, given the pace of cultural change) of constantly morphing show titles.

Which in the case of “Up All Night” might someday make for a satisfying circle. Let’s say the show lasts 17 years — unlikely, but let’s say it anyway. After another year or two, these parents will go from “Up All Night” to “Eat Your Vegetables.” Then maybe “You’re Too Young for a Cellphone,” followed by “Don’t You Talk That Way to Your Mother” and — we’re in the late tweener years now — “You Are NOT Wearing That to School.”

Eventually the kid gets a driver’s license, which in the fullness of time brings us back to “Up All Night.” Because when a teenager is out in the car on a date that was supposed to end at 10 but is still going on at midnight, no parent can sleep.

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