workplace sitcoms

American Auto Ruins Everyone Equally

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

After two seasons, NBC’s American Auto has grown into the kind of show that fulfills all the warm and fuzzy pleasures of the best workplace sitcoms. The cast, led by Ana Gasteyer as Payne Motors CEO Katherine Hastings, has jelled into one of those delightful, humming TV engines with all the separate pieces operating in concert to keep the whole thing running smoothly. It’s a TV comedy that feels reliable, comfortable. It gets the job done, and after some typical early-series stalls, the jokes are now firing on all cylinders. (It’s very hard to resist car metaphors when describing this show.)

It’s also become clear that American Auto has figured out how to reengineer something subtle but fundamental about how the workplace sitcom usually operates, allowing the series to shift into its own TV-comedy lane. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying to stop.) What American Auto has accomplished, and what so few workplace sitcoms manage to achieve, is turning its setting into the primary source of its jokes. Most workplace shows are comedies about wacky people who just happen to be hanging out at work. American Auto, at its core, is a comedy about how corporate culture can turn otherwise reasonable people into total monsters.

There are some familiar constants of workplace sitcoms: Someone’s going to be the reasonable employee, someone’s going to be the clueless one, someone’s going to be a lovable rascal, and someone’s going to be the mean one. That formula does get adapted and scrambled and reworked as the genre develops: Leslie Knope gets to trade off between cluelessness and competence; everyone on 30 Rock is a dumbass in their own way. But those basic character types are present in Taxi in the ’70s, and in NewsRadio in the ’90s, and in Abbott Elementary today. One character’s an idiot while another one is functional, and the work itself doesn’t alter much about either character’s behavior. The idea that undergirds the whole workplace sitcom is just “Here are these people with little in common who happen to have ended up in this job, thrown together day after day.”

That’s still true on American Auto, at least a little. Katherine has lots of on-the-nose bad-boss qualities, especially early in the series. She’s overconfident, she’s often more focused on her own desires than on the welfare of her employees, and, most important, she knows absolutely nothing about cars or car companies. Chief communications officer Sadie Ryan (Harriet Dyer) gets stuck as the responsible one, trying to wrangle Katherine’s bad impulses. Jon Barinholtz’s Wesley Payne is the entitled doofus. Jack (Tye White) is the salt-of-the-earth common-sense guy. Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington) is uptight and knows better than everyone else. Elliot (Humphrey Ker) is the bootlicker. Dori (X Mayo) is the wacky, anti-authority assistant. It’s a cookie-cutter workplace-sitcom character spread, well balanced and primed for high jinks.

Something shifts, though, by the end of season one. Instead of stories in which each character type drives the messes they find themselves in, something about the culture of working in this global company’s C-suite starts to screw with all of them. As season two revs up, we learn that Katherine actually does care about her co-workers. She’s good at corporate crises. She wants to do better. She even learns to drive! But the specific nature of her corporate job keeps putting her into bizarre, defensive, inhuman circumstances. Katherine wants to combat news stories about her poor decisions as CEO, and she falls into an absurd mire of shooting a warm, personable, relatable video featuring her family that is entirely fake. When employees complain about the company’s abortion policies, Katherine cannot just say what she believes, which is that she generally agrees with them. Instead, she has to participate in a “listening tour,” which ends with the whole company collapsing into an unwinnable game of blame, “being canceled,” and optics-based Russian roulette. An effort to improve the company’s sustainability profile ends with most of the C-suite getting taken in by an Elizabeth Holmes–esque grifter. Even a trip to a school science fair becomes a nightmare when Katherine finds herself trying to learn anodyne apology language in Amharic.

American Auto is not the only comedy to have figured out that corporations make for excellent adversaries. Comedy Central’s Corporate starts from this premise, and the fantastic, still-mourned Better Off Ted takes the idea to absurdist extremes. What’s most effective about American Auto, though, is the way that concept plays throughout the ensemble. Every single high-level Payne employee, regardless of their competence, thoughtfulness, kindness, or baseline idiocy (yes, they do still have one of those guys), finds themselves stuck in corporate-culture bullshit. The shift is visible as early as episode six of season one, when Payne has to shoot a new ad spot to counter murmurs that the company is anti-LGBTQ+. By season two, it’s the show’s standard operating mechanism: Every time these people try to do any straightforward, reasonable, normal thing, they are stymied by large-scale economics, impersonal corporate culture, or the social expectations that a corporation can behave like a person.

It frequently falls to Sadie, whose role in communications means she’s constantly negotiating between social expectations and economic pressure. She is a thoughtful, well-meaning person who starts a scene in season two’s “Dealer Event” insisting that Indianans are just nice, normal people and quickly finds herself nodding in approval as Cyrus explains that a promotional image featuring someone burning a Harry Potter book can appeal to red staters and blue staters. The dizzying weirdness of existing in this workplace squeezes everyone at one point or another, though. Dori invents an elaborate fantasyland of fictional social-media accounts to boost Katherine’s profile. Elliot has to extort a middle schooler for the legal rights to their improbably accurate car-design school project. Even Jack, the most levelheaded, ends up on an all-male committee to assess corporate abortion policy. No one escapes. At Payne, everyone is the reasonable one and everyone is the doofus because everyone starts as a person and occasionally realizes they’ve been pummeled into a person-shaped tangle of company jargon and willfully empty gestures of goodwill.

What stops American Auto from veering all the way into Veep-esque grimness is that, even though its setting is just as potentially soul crushing and inane as the American federal government, the people at its core can still be good to one another and even retain some idealism about what Payne could be. The season-two finale, “Judgement Day,” walks this line perfectly. Katherine and the whole team are forced to new lows because they’re stockholders in thrall to the wild, impersonal swings of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. At the same time, they manage to make a just-fine-enough car, and it turns out lots of customers really do want a vehicle that most people can afford that mostly works. The perfect emotional mixture of that final episode comes out of what American Auto has learned that no other sitcom currently airing has: It is so fun to be able to root for all the characters in a comedy while also laughing at the nightmare of impersonal, enormous corporate logic — one of the biggest, silliest bad guys in American life.

American Auto Ruins Everyone Equally