‘1600 Penn,’ not a parody. Too bad.
The jokes are so lame you'd think the writers were putting us on
December 13, 2012
In 2001, Comedy Central briefly aired a sitcom created by the guys from "South Park" called "That's My Bush!" which was set in the White House and starred Timothy Bottoms as George W. Bush. Although most people expected the show to skewer the personality and policies of the president, it actually focused on parodying the loud, dumb, obvious sitcoms of the 1970s and '80s.
NBC's new sitcom "1600 Penn," set in a contemporary White House with a generic president, lacks both a studio audience and a laugh track, so it's not as loud as "Three's Company" or "Gimme a Break!" But the jokes tend toward the dumb and obvious, so much so that one begins to suspect the show is a parody.
Unfortunately, it seems that the creators intend us to take their weak jokes straight. Although the cast members are talented, they can't compensate for the absence of any discernible satiric targets and, in fact, the absence of any point to the show.
In the show's defense, the pilot, airing in a sneak preview next Monday, Dec. 17, at 9:30 p.m., is the worst of the three episodes provided for review. It starts with a scene that at first seems to be a spoof of "Revenge of the Nerds"-type college comedies: Skip Gilchrist (Josh Gad) leads a group of geeky losers in a retaliatory prank that causes a frat house to go up in flames.
Having thus blown seven years of college, Skip is rushed home, which — surprise! — is the White House. Meanwhile, Skip's usually responsible sister, Becca (Martha MacIsaac), is blowing off a public appearance with their stepmother, Emily (Jenna Elfman), because she's in the bathroom repeatedly taking pregnancy tests.
Their father, President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman), decides that Skip should live at the White House for a while, but he remains ignorant of Becca's issue. Emily, meanwhile, tries to form a bond with her stepchildren, who also include the younger twins Xander (Benjamin Stockham) and Marigold (Amara Miller).
The main story line in the premiere is the president's meeting with a group of South American leaders. He has to let the Brazilian president win at tennis so that he'll concede an important trade issue. Skip manages to get mixed up in the game and the later negotiations.
The creators evidently think they can draw comedy from the incongruity between the dignity of the president's job and the chaos of his family life. But this is such an old comic premise that one thinks there has to be something more. In the first three episodes, there isn't.
Many of the jokes are so feeble that one thinks they can't be serious. For example, before the tennis game, the Brazilian president tells Dale, "I'm about to do to you what China did to your manufacturing sector."
Later we learn that the Brazilian's name is Enrique Hernando Feliz Navidad de Soto. This is apparently a dig at the Spanish penchant for having long names. It's unclear whether the writers know that Brazilians speak Portuguese.
Skip gets so much screen time in the premiere that it often seems as if he were originally meant to be the focus of the series; Josh Gad is an executive producer and co-creator of the show. But Skip is such a tired comic type — the chubby, glib, ignorant boy-man — that it takes all of Gad's skill to make his scenes bearable.
The next two episodes benefit by giving more face time to the other players. Both Jenna Elfman and Martha MacIsaac are appealing in their roles, which, fortunately for them, aren't caricatures or clichés. When they get subtle lines, they shine.
Bill Pullman, however, too often plays the straight man in his scenes. Neither he nor the writers seem to have thought of anything that could make his character funny. The same goes for the recurring character of the White House press secretary, Marshall Malloy (Andre Holland).
The third episode, however, suffers from a plotline that's even weaker than the pilot's. The Austrian chancellor and his wife are visiting and are looking forward to dining off a set of dishes that are incredibly significant in their country's history. But ol' Skip has borrowed those dishes for a special occasion for Becca.
One might expect some funny inside-baseball stuff about politics or life in the White House, but one won't find it. A couple of lines suggest the show might have originally aimed at black humor, but that ambition seems to have been squelched.
NBC Universal has recruited some of its news and comedy stars — including Joe Scarborough, Jay Leno and Willie Geist — to appear in cameos as themselves. They don't bring "1600 Penn" up. It brings them down.
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