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‘1600 Penn’ predictable, yet to hit stride

Unrelated storylines keep NBC’s new comedy from its potential

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 02:01

Ultimately, “1600 Penn” is a standard dysfunctional family comedy. This particular dysfunctional family just happens to live and work in the White House.

A talented cast leads its First Family: Josh Gad of the musical “Book of Mormon” (2011) is Skip Gilchrist, the eldest son of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman), who is once again sitting in the Oval Office. Jenna Elfman is the semi−new step−mom/first lady, Emily. Together, these three lead a cast of characters that, as of the first two episodes, seems capable only of hovering at the edges of storylines.

The pilot opens with Skip’s accidentally setting fire to a fraternity at his college, where after seven years of education, he is still three credits short of graduating. His leader−of−the−free−world father whisks him back to the White House, where we are introduced to the rest of the family. Step−mom Emily is struggling to be a parent to the President’s other children. There’s perfect college−graduate Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and two younger ones, Marigold (Amara Miller) and boy−genius Xander (Benjamin Stockham). We soon learn that Becca is pregnant from a one−night stand — and by the end of the second episode, the First Family and frazzled press secretary (Andre Holland — who seems to be the President’s only staffer) — are fighting off a press corps eager for a scoop on the first grandchild.

Although the show hasn’t yet hit its stride, “1600 Penn” does have significant potential. In particular, there are some excellent bits of comedy from the three leading actors. Gad’s Skip is truly funny as an earnest, eager−to−please man−child. He has both heart and great awkwardness, which the writers demonstrate quite effectively in the first two episodes, as Skip’s well−intended attempts to help out his father and sister inadvertently turn into fiascos. For example, in addition to the fire at Skip’s alma mater, the pilot also features Skip’s accidentally setting another fire — this time in the White House during a summit with Latin American leaders. Furthermore, in “The Skiplantic Ocean,” Skip tries to deflect the press’s attention from Becca, only to wind up revealing her baby’s less−than−admirable conception.

These miniature storylines are some of the show’s funniest — and Gad gives them his all — but they also reveal the show’s weaknesses when they both get tied up too easily and quickly. Hopefully Skip’s role will become more diverse as the show progresses; the writers will have a hard time keeping people watching if they stick to the formulaic, as they have done thus far. Gad is talented and his character shouldn’t be confined to the same plot arc each episode.

Elfman nails stressed, people−pleasing first lady Emily, who is trying desperately to get her step−children to accept her. Thus far, she has shared few scenes with on−screen husband Pullman, which is unfortunate — we never get to see these characters try to parent together, nor do we have any sense of their marriage. Pullman, for his part, plays the President as a loving but easily angered father. Though he does have some funny scenes — such as when he discusses parenting advice with the Joint Chiefs of Staff —there is much richer comic material that he could, and should, explore.

Interestingly, “1600 Penn” makes the choice to stay far away from anything resembling political humor and is currently so stubbornly nonpartisan that it seems unlikely to dive into that sphere of comedy. It’s an understandable choice — the show’s focus is on the family, not politics — but the material needs to be richer to make this comedy thrive. Gad does a masterful job with what he’s got, as do Pullman and Elfman, but the often cliche jokes and storylines are hard to make fresh. “1600 Penn” has the potential to be laugh−out−loud funny, but for now, it is still trying to find its groove.

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