I’ll admit I was biased against the NBC’s new White House sitcom 1600 Penn, about a “dysfunctional First Family,” after I saw the terrible, terrible, parody-esque bump the network made for it (seriously, isn’t that the same style/music 30 Rock uses to make fun of terrible fictional NBC shows like “Queen of Jordan”?). But a series shouldn’t be punished because of an inept promo editor, and some early positive buzz from a few trusted sources had me watching the first three episodes with cautious optimism. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last through even one segment.
The pilot, which aired as a sneak peak in December, is (confusingly) not the episode that will (from my understanding) be kicking off the series this month. It’s a shame, too, because the pilot at least explains the set up, which the second episode sorely needs. Hit the jump for the Who’s Who of 1600 Penn, and whether it’s worth tuning in for.
Quasi-reprising his role from Independence Day, Bill Pullman again plays the President, with Jenna Elfman (Dharma and Greg) as his “trophy wife” (a device I actually liked — for once there’s a reason the mother is only 10 years older than her children, though not why she only weighs 45 pounds). The kids including Josh Gad (from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon), who has also helped create the series alongside Jason Winer (Modern Family). Rounding out the group is a perfectionist daughter (Martha MacIsaac, Superbad), and two rarely-seen younger siblings without much personality yet (Amara Miller and Benjamin Stockham).
Most of the inaugural (see what I did there?) three episodes focus on the perfectionist daughter Becca’s accidental pregnancy. While this is played initially as a PR nightmare, that aspect quickly disappears, and in a subsequent episode the President, his daughter, and about twenty Secret Service agents go to the mall to talk to the baby daddy (at Old Navy, no less) unnoticed. Seriously, that would never happen without someone getting cell phone footage these days. In fact, that very idea of a lack of privacy pervades most shows about fame and politics, yet is strangely lacking here when it could be used to easy comic effect.
While the show does, here and there, portray the news media as ravenous dogs looking for scandal, it spends far too much time on absurd (and not funny) family reactions to Becca’s news. Given that we don’t really know the characters yet, and that Becca is only a cliche shell, there’s not a great deal to work with emotionally. And there should really be something, because the jokes are not carrying it one iota.
Though Josh Gad gives himself plenty of material, the others falter. Gad has some genuinely funny lines, but also overwhelms the proceedings with his constant chatter. He has more throwaway jokes than the rest of the characters put together.
Comedy pilots are notoriously bad indicators of a show’s eventual success, and even three episodes isn’t a great amount of time to see where 1600 Penn could go. So far though, the characters all seem like tired rehashes of people we’ve seen before. Jenna Elfman is essentially imitating Julie Bowen‘s Claire from Modern Family, while the youngest son is a carbon copy of the precocious child Brick from The Middle.
For a political comedy, there’s not much comedy or politics, although there a few gags at the expense of foreign dignitaries. One expects more from former White House speech writer Jon Lovett, who along with Gad and Winer created the series, although perhaps his contribution comes largely (and exclusively) in the character of press secretary Marshall, played by a great and underused Andre Holland (Bride Wars). Marshall’s weariness with the press is familiar, but it’s not fresh or revelatory in any way, and certainly doesn’t suggest insider perspective.
If you want a slick satire about political life that focuses on the absurdity of politics and the personalities drawn to it, watch Veep. 1600 Penn is not the worst comedy from this past year, but it’s far from the best. There are enough decent jokes to flip it on and give it a chance to find itself, if you can be bothered. But if you are looking for a higher standard of comedy, keep searching. To quote Gad’s character Skip, “Do you see the bright side? I mean, I’m asking if you do, just because this seems like a disaster.”
1600 Penn kicks off Thursday, January 10th and 9:30 ET on NBC.