The new White House comedy 1600 Penn already has critical admirers, and NBC seems bullish on it; the network is running a special “preview” of the pilot tonight in advance of the show’s official January premiere. “It’s a dubious idea to give a ‘sneak preview’ of any series nearly a month in advance, but NBC might be doing the right thing with its new comedy 1600 Penn,” raved The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, a tough critic who doesn’t usually go in for this kind of show. “That’s because no matter when it airs, the pilot will be funny. And the second episode funnier still. And the third as well.”
“Hmmm,” sez I. Humor is subjective, your mileage may vary, yada yada, but the first three episodes that NBC sent to critics did nothing for me. Zip. Nada. Ladies and gentlemen, I didn’t laugh once. And as anybody who’s ever read me knows, when it comes to dumb humor, I’m a cheap date.
1600 Penn is a sitcom from the minds of Jason Winer (Modern Family), ex–White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, and The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad, who also stars as the president’s screwup son, Skip. He is the sort of character that the late Chris Farley used to play: an overgrown boy; bearish, manic, socially and physically inept, but good at heart. The pilot kicks off with Skip, now in his seventh year of college, pranking a frat house by shooting off fireworks on its lawn. One of the shells goes through a window and sets the place on fire, and Secret Service agents swoop in and stuff Josh in a limo to protect him.
The scene is amusing in the abstract, but it didn’t play for me because — as is the case elsewhere in 1600 Penn — it gives a potentially rich comic scenario the bum’s rush. Presumably the Secret Service has been following this doofus around for years cleaning up his messes. I immediately started imagining a series from their point of view, which appears (from where we sit, anyway) to be entirely neutral: observe and protect, don’t pass judgment no matter how badly you want to. There were probably other equally fascinating ways the writers could have spun it, but they went the obvious route: mild reversal of expectations as pre-credits sting. The fireworks bit would have fit right into a C+ Hollywood comedy starring a second-tier Saturday Night Live cast member released in 1995.
That describes nearly all of 1600 Penn, alas. Gad’s character moves back into the White House so that his family can keep an eye on him, and he immediately proceeds to make trouble for his dad, President Dale Gilchrest (Bill Pullman, here playing a veteran of the first Gulf War, as he also did in Independence Day), a standard-issue sputtering, beleaguered authority figure. We also meet the president’s second wife and first lady, Emily Nash Gilchrest (Jenna Elfman), who doesn’t like being called a “trophy wife” but doesn’t make a terribly persuasive case otherwise. Gilchrest also has a teenage daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac), whose entire character is defined by the fact that she’s pregnant. An offhand scene explains that it happened at a party; I’d have loved to have actually seen the party and the Secret Service loitering at the margins, practicing a nonintervention policy but gnashing their teeth over the girl’s poor judgment. Whatever happened to the credo expressed in the Clint Eastwood movie In the Line of Fire: that the Secret Service agent’s job is to protect the target’s reputation as well as his or her safety?
I keep getting hung up on this Secret Service thing, and I guess that’s unfair to the show and a little weird, maybe; but what’s onscreen is so tepid and unimaginative that it practically compelled my mind to wander. The supposedly madcap shenanigans — Skip good-naturedly and improbably helping to negotiate a trade agreement; Becca hallucinating that every other word out of her stepmother’s mouth has something to do with pregnancy and lady parts — aren’t funny enough to compensate for not being daring enough, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, check out Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short-lived but agreeably cuckoo That’s My Bush!, which pushed the same concept (an utterly unremarkable domestic sitcom that just happens to be set in the White House) so far that it sometimes resembled the Natural Born Killers sitcom parody starring Rodney Dangerfield. HBO’s current Veep works in the same vein; as I wrote in a Vulture review, when you watch it, “you may feel as if you’ve stumbled into a deleted dream sequence from I Love Lucy.” On the other end of the White House–themed pop-culture spectrum, you have earnest, quasi-realistic stuff like The West Wing and The American President, and such D.C.-based potboilers as Scandal and Homeland, which at times suggest melodramas plotted like slapstick sitcoms. The tension between substance and style makes all of these works worth seeing and having an opinion on, even if you ultimately decide you don’t like them.
In comparison, 1600 Penn is just a half-hour of your life you’ll never get back; Gad’s Chris Farley–Jonah Hill scratchy-voiced whine and man-boy cavorting dominate the series to the point where nearly every other character seems to be reacting to his presence even if they’re not in the same room, or the same state. This is lowest-common-denominator stuff; I’d say it seemed to be kissing the ass of its star if Gad were actually a star, which he isn’t yet. Pullman is reduced to making a series of constipated faces, Elfman’s bubbly weirdness has been neutered with a dose of network sitcom middle-aged female neuroses, and the rest of the characters are barely interesting enough to rate a mention, although Andre Holland’s press secretary, Marshall Malloy, sneaks in a couple of decent jaw-on-floor reactions to Gad’s clowning. The show is “clever” in a way that makes me mourn how far standards of cleverness have fallen. If it’s the best new comedy that NBC has in the pipeline, the network is in more trouble than anyone knew.
Then again, I thought The Neighbors was pretty funny, so go ahead, tune in, knock yourself out.