First Daughter Becca Gilchrist is pregnant and the entire country knows about it. The Gilchrists, the, sigh, wacky First Family, are freaking out. Everyone, that is, except for Skip. Poor, stupid Skip. Poor, stupid, horribly annoying Skip. The largest improvement between the pilot and second episodes of 1600 Penn is the role of Skip is diminished, at least by a little bit, by having the Gilchrists split up to deal with the news of Becca’s pregnancy in their own way. Avid TV viewers (we are legion!) have seen a pregnancy storyline in the White House just this year, when Veep’s Selina Meyer was horrified to learn that she had done got herself pregnant (clearly these women live in an alternate universe where Obamacare doesn’t exist). Selina’s reaction to her eventual miscarriage (“It’s fine. I mean it was like a heavy period”) was such an unusual way to treat pregnancy on television, vice presidential or not, that it felt liberating in a way. But 1600 Penn is not one of those shows that blazes trails, continuing Becca’s pregnancy storyline with sitcom schlock and sentimentality. It’s all going to be okay, because President Dad loves you.
In my initial review of 1600 Penn, I complained about Bill Pullman, saying that he didn’t have to comedic chops to act against a sitcom vet like Jenna Elfman. In “The Skiplantic Ocean,” Pullman’s Dale Gilchrist retreats to his Joint Chiefs of Staff to ostensibly discuss a terrorist cell, but conversation devolves to Gilchrist’s general surly demeanor and parenting techniques. It’s not a hilariously-written scene to begin with (“Sometimes the best weapon in your arsenal is the hug”), but it only augments how disengaged Pullman feels in this role. Pullman is not incompetent and has certainly been funny in the past (Jake Kasdan’s Zero Effect, for one example), but doesn’t take to the material enough to elevate it. Then again, it is a scene that involves jokes about daddy blogs, so maybe the blame isn’t entirely on on Pullman.
Hanging out on the outskirts of each scene is Andre Holland as press secretary Marshall Malloy. On first viewing of the first three episodes, I thought Malloy was so inconsequential, I didn’t even mention him in my review. But on second viewing, Marshall is considerably more interesting that I originally thought he was. There was one scene in particular, when Emily is trying to shield stepkids Marigold and Xander from the news of Becca’s full womb, we see Marshall dealing with the press on the screen behind her. It says something that my mind traveled to Marshall, wanting to know how he was up to dealing with reporters, or “the worst people in the world,” rather than listen to Emily construct more elaborate lies about vacations or meteors or something. The vacations-meteors-something plotline was unexceptional and did nothing to prove that having a younger set of Gilchrist children is at all necessary. I still like Benjamin Stockham and Amara Miller, though. Hopefully, they will prove more useful in the future.
What’s telling about “The Skiplantic Ocean” is how quickly the series tries to shake Becca from her Type A archetype. Sitcom characters are often given an episode to explore the opposite of their personality, to be someone other than their rigidly defined persona. But these shake-ups usually occur after we know a character for awhile. We knew Ron Swanson before he rekindled his romance Tammy Two (again), so it was hilarious to see him go wild or take to cornrows. When he inevitably casts off Tammy and goes back to normal, it only further asserts the character who we already know. But we don’t know Becca as anything other than the woman who executives a perfect dive when she jumps into the pool after her phone. There was little comedy to be mined watching Becca be the chill person who would rather float than craft a statement about her uterine status because she is not a fully realized character yet. She is a Tracy Flick-lite stereotype. That means it’s Skip still gets to have the punchline in “The Skiplantic Ocean,” which was originally called “Everything’s Nice in the Pool” (notice the Skip-less title). Even though Skip was mercifully less of a presence in this episode than the pilot, he will always be the driving force behind 1600 Penn’s comedy. That is, if you can stomach him. By diminishing Skip’s role, even slightly, 1600 Penn makes the mistake of showing us that he (and the show) is so much easier to take when he isn't around as often.