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Review: Stuff and nonsense at '1600 Penn'

The first family in classic sitcom mold? How 'That's My Bush!' The new NBC comedy's focus seems to be on co-creator/star Josh Gad, which is too much of a good thing.

December 17, 2012|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Jenna Elfman, left, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac in "1600 Penn."
Jenna Elfman, left, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac in "1600 Penn." (Jordin Althaus / NBC )

Josh Gad, who was nominated for a Tony for "The Book of Mormon," is the co-creator and effectively the star of "1600 Penn," a new single-camera sitcom from NBC about the first family. It gets a preview Monday night to draft off "The Voice" before taking up a Thursday post in January.

As in Comedy Central's "That's My Bush!" more than two election cycles back, the big idea is to stock the White House with characters familiar from a thousand years of situation comedy. We get a gruff and grumpy dad, the president (Bill Pullman); a new stepmother, the first lady (Jenna Elfman); a disaster-prone son (Gad), back living with the family after seven years of college so they can keep an eye on him, which they don't; a smart daughter (the excellent Martha MacIsaac); a skeptical younger daughter (Amara Miller); and a little fella (Benjamin Stockham) who uses words like "absconding" and wears spectacles so you'll know he's smart. Featuring Andre Holland as Anne B. Davis.

Arriving as part of a small yearlong trend for inside-the-Beltway series that includes "Veep," "Political Animals" and "Scandal," it has nothing much to say about politics or Washington. The writers use terms of local color (trade deal, terrorist cell), but the humor runs more to the president getting advice on parenting from his generals ("Sometimes the best weapon in your arsenal is the hug") and threatening a daughter's potential boyfriend with a drone attack ("I have robots that roam the skies — sky robots"). It is not a satire.

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Rather, it adapts standard sitcom tropes to its august setting. (The production values are high, the staging convincing.) For a visiting Austrian chancellor and wife, read visiting in-laws, and so on. It is a safe bet that rare china shown in the first act will be in pieces in the third and that a lesson will be learned and a homily offered before the last commercial break: As in, "If we can hold fast to one another, even in the chaos of this world, we're going to be just fine." Perhaps that's the satirical part.

Co-creator and head writer Jon Lovett wrote speeches for President Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and I will not challenge him over what nonsense may in fact go on within the West and other Wings. (Jason Winer, a producing director on "Modern Family," is the third creative partner here.) There is some historical precedent for embarrassing presidential relations, if not quite like Gad's Skip (code name: Meatball), a familiar comic type: the earnest bumbler who in the process of doing everything wrong helps things come out right.

Still, as plain human comedy, and notwithstanding a good number of efficient jokes, I was not convinced. The characters seemed barely acquainted at times.

Despite the marquee presence of Pullman, who has already played the president in a big-screen sci-fi flick ("Independence Day"), and Elfman, whom I would like to see again in something as good as "Townies" (ABC, 1996), this might easily called "The Josh Gad Show," so completely does he dominate the episodes I've seen. It's as if "The Beverly Hillbillies" had been conceived as "Jethro!"

There's an old actor's warning against playing with children or dogs, and Gad is a bit of both. As the quirkiest character here by several lengths, he rules every scene he's in.

It's not so much that a little of him goes a long way — he's an adroit actor, and his breathy, singsongy way with Skip feels original, until it feels tiring — as that there's just a lot of him here. He obscures the view, or becomes it, and he can make the rest of the show seem sort of beside the point.

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'1600 Penn'

Where: NBC

When: 9:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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