1600 Penn debuts tonight on NBC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. It moves to its regular time, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., on January 10.
1600 Penn is a comedy about a family who just so happens to live in a really big house and the patriarch just so happens to be the leader of the free world. It’s not a high concept we’re dealing with here, which is totally understandable. Family comedies have become classics and thrived based on similarly simple ideas and switching such basic tenets, like blended families and differing socioeconomic backgrounds, but at least those shows were funny. 1600 Penn is not.
The show’s pedigree is a perfect blend of its content: One executive producer is a former Obama speechwriter (Jon Lovett), one used to cash checks at TV’s current family juggernaut Modern Family (Jason Winer), one used to cash checks at TV’s former family juggernaut Everybody Loves Raymond (Mike Royce), and one was nominated for a Tony for playing a screw-up desperate to be loved in Book Of Mormon (Josh Gad). The family these men have created is the Gilchrists, led by President Dale (Bill Pullman, not Paxton), trophy wife Emily (Jenna Elfman), and Dale’s kids: perfect Becca (Martha MacIsaac, who played almost the same character, down to the name, in Superbad), the possibly Sapphic preteen Marigold (Amara Miller of The Descendants), young brainiac Xander (Benjamin Stockham, my favorite part of the little-loved Sons of Tucson), and, of course, Skip (Gad). Think of Skip as Tommy Callahan of Tommy Boy without the charm (or Chris Farley’s incredible physical presence, for that matter). Despite being the eldest son of the president, Skip can’t get a job and is sent home from his seventh year of college after burning down a frat house. Becca, meanwhile, is cracking because she’s just found out she’s knocked up and the only person she can tell is stepmom Emily, whom she hates for replacing her mother.
Seem like a lot to take in? It is. Gad has made it clear that this show isn’t supposed to be political. But it’s not like there’s room for politics, anyway. Like many pop-culture entries focusing on Hollywood for ugly people, the actual views of 1600 Penn’s power players aren’t discussed, so as not to alienate potential audience be they red, blue, or some sort of purplish hue. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who worked with Gad on Book Of Mormon, showed a political comedy could be created while blatantly discussing the political views of its main characters in That’s My Bush! Similar satirical jabs would have felt out of place at 1600 Penn, because it is so rooted in the family. But rather than go in new directions with the chosen concept, 1600 Penn relies only on the political so that Pullman can say things like, “I have the emotion of a father and the power of a president. It’s a dangerous combination,” and discuss family matters instead of whether to obliterate a terrorist cell. He could really be working any other job and the plot mechanisms wouldn’t have to change at all. The main problem with taking an apolitical stance on a show like 1600 Penn is that President Gilchrist’s daily life is so entrenched in the political that by not knowing what he stands for, we don’t really know who he is beyond a grumbling dad who ends the night eating ice cream with his much-hotter wife, watching Jay Leno (Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, under contract at MSNBC, also get a cameo appearance).
The first three episodes are fueled mainly on Skip’s return from college and Becca’s unexpected pregnancy. The pilot uses Skip as its center, but future episodes thankfully turn down the quirky-son quotient. That leaves Becca, whose pregnancy is the sitcom version of Bristol Palin (minus the salacious, tabloid-y good time of the real thing), but the audience can never forget that Becca has a bun in the oven because MacIsaac constantly rubs her stomach as if she’s really gestating a genie who could grant her three magical wishes. Their plotlines and presences loom so largely over the show that Xander and Marigold are given so little thought and screentime (in spite of their talents) that it’s a wonder why the creators included the younger set of kids at all. At least Gad and MacIsaac know what to do with their roles. Pullman, who has already played one great movie president, certainly has the gravitas to pull of the commander-in-chief but he has no idea how to be a sitcom dad. He’s stiff and doesn’t look like he’s having any fun, contrasted to sitcom vet such as Elfman, who is repurposing the out-of-control control freak from her cancelled, post-Dharma And Greg sitcom Accidentally On Purpose, just in a more high-powered setting. She knows how to be a cartoon and consistently stay grounded, while Pullman never lets himself go.