“So You Don’t Want to Dance” covered how to get a bill through congress that was way too complicated to fit into any kind of Schoolhouse Rock song. Racist senators, tangoing first ladies and lovelorn idiots were in no way involved in “I’m Just a Bill.” Yet, it all came together for the first episode of 1600 Penn where I actually cracked a smile. That may be because I could watch Stacy Keach be a cantankerous racist bastard for hours, but it also may be because 1600 Penn is finding its voice. That voice is still not particularly funny, but it’s better than a banal family sitcom dressed up in White House fanciness.
Keach plays Senator Thoroughgood, a wheelchair-bound Strom Thurmond-type who spews out bigotry—"I'm sorry I'm late, my aide drives like a Hawaiian"—before falling gently asleep. Emily and Dale desperately need Thurmond’s help to pass Emily’s pet project, which we learned about in the pilot: A program that will put more math and science teachers into schools. “Algebra. You know that word has Arabic roots,” Thoroughgood says. (My favorite racist Thoroughgood line: “Say some flowery words written by your best Jew.” Aw, and I thought anti-Semites only noticed our frugality. We are good with words, aren't we? Also: "You're blocking my egress!")
Emily and Dale try to bargain their way through a bill, trading a vote on education for a greased wheels highway project. It’s in these scenes I saw 1600 Penn’s voice emerging. Forcing comedy out of a cliche sitcom family isn’t funny, but mining comedy from an already ridiculous political process is much more interesting. The idea alone that children’s education is discussed in the same breath as infrastructure, as if the First Lady and the Senator are trading a cupcake for a Snack Pack on the school playground, rather than dealing with issues of major import, is where 1600 Penn could be genuinely unique, by playing the political process as slapstick. Take Emily, for instance. She’s dealing with a wholly modern First Lady problem. She had a career before she was a politician’s wife and is not used to playing the empty smiling vessel standing behind her all-powerful husband, so she tries to take action. The only problem is that no one wants to focus on her policies, people just want to focus on her killer arms. Michelle Obama could probably deal with fewer of those questions herself. But Emily got what she wanted by dredging up a past she was hoping to forget. Look, 1600 Penn didn’t delve into an in-depth discussion of the what it means to be a feminist First Lady in the 21st century, but that’s because it’s not a particularly deep show. Where it’s finding its footing, and where it should continue going in the future, is to mine comedy from the environment the Gilchrists are in, not from the Glichrists themselves. Any sitcom can do that, 1600 Penn has a chance to be different.
Instead of working with the comedy inherent in politics, 1600 Penn forces the family dynamic. One of the problems I saw in initial episodes was the lack of younger Gilchrists. There was already so much going on what with the Gilchrist patriarch being the leader of the free world, the First Daughter getting knocked up and the First Son being the world's oldest seven-year-old that there might not be room for poor Xander and Marigold. In this episode there certainly wasn’t. They don’t fit with all that’s going on 1600 Penn. While I like both Amara Miller and Benjamin Stockham as actors, they certainly weren’t missed in this “So You Don’t Want to Dance.” Their inclusion only further complicates an already cluttered cast. The episode was so stuffed that a major potential plot point going forward—that Becca and Marshall used to date—was relegated to a passing scene.
But what do you with a problem like Skip? 1600 Penn lives or dies on whether you think the Skip shtick is funny and I’ve established through two reviews already that I don’t. Although, I must admit, he’s not a bad dancer. This was the first episode where I didn’t find Skip wholly grating. Granted, any scene where he actually had to take part in any sort of major action, like courting mail girl Stacey, made me grind my teeth, but Josh Gad has turned down the hyperactivity just a smidgen, making Skip that much more tolerable. Skip got his first laugh out of me when he told Becca, “A lot of people told me Im like a young Fred Astaire. Do you know how that is? Is that a compliment?”
While I’m clearly unimpressed by the family aspects of this family sitcom, there was one development that I enjoyed: the development of the Emily-Dale romance. My favorite family sitcoms involve amazing chemistry between the two parent figures. It’s part of sitcom magic, and why TV is better than real life. No matter how fresh you keep it, the Huxtables were having better than sex you will ever have. It’s part of the glue that kept them together as family unit and it’s one of the reasons why they were aspirational, because no matter what, those fake spouses loved each other. The Gilchrists may be in the White House, but the show has spent so much time making them a normal American family, despite their circumstances. But a little show of chemistry between Bill Pullman (who, admittedly, has vastly improved from previous episodes) and Jenna Elfman creates the spark that makes a sitcom worth watching. It was just a simple moment, but my favorite part of this episode came down to Dale telling Emily that there was, in fact, air conditioning in the campaign van.