Early in the second episode of NBC’s new sitcom “1600 Penn,” the President of the United States himself, Dale Gilchrist, is in the Situation Room of the White House for a briefing on terrorism. Only all Gilchrist can think about is a secret that his oldest daughter Becca didn’t tell him, and as he begins to realize that his military advisers also don’t like to tell him things, he demands to know why.
“What am I missing here?” he asks one officer.
“Well, sir,” the nervous man replies, “when you get bad news, your personality can be, uh, not good.”
“I don’t take bad news well?” the president replies.
“It’s kind of a shoot the messenger situation, sir,” another officer interjects.
Shortly after this, we cut away to what’s happening with the rest of the First Family, and by the time we return to the Situation Room, Gilchrist and the generals have abandoned all pretense of talking strategy and are simply swapping parenting horror stories. In a later episode – after the FBI has become entangled in his problems with Becca – Gilchrist will acknowledge that, “I have the emotions of a father and the power of a president. It’s a dangerous combination sometime.”
“1600 Penn,” in other words, is a comedy that wants you to remember that while the president is the leader of both our government and military, he’s also a husband and father, and that he can go through the same problems as the rest of us – he just has very impressive tools – and armies – at his disposal to solve them if he absolutely has to.
It’s not a bad premise, especially when the president is played by Bill Pullman, a wry comic actor who famously occupied the Oval Office back in “Independence Day.” And there are moments like that one in the Situation Room, or when comedy pro Rene Auberjenois turns up as an aide to Gilchrist’s second wife Emily (Jenna Elfman), where “1600 Penn” lives up to its big idea.
But a lot of the time, the show’s thesis seems to be less “What if an ordinary family’s problems were taking place in the White House?” but rather “What if a sitcom family’s problems were taking place in the White House?” Like “That’s My Bush!,” a short-lived Comedy Central show from the “South Park” creators with the second President Bush as its main character, much of “1600 Penn” is about seeing what kind of classic comedy hijinks can be associated with our Commander-in-Chief.
“1600 Penn” (which airs a sneak preview of its pilot Monday night at 9:30 before returning on January 10) isn’t as broad a show as “That’s My Bush!” Like most of NBC’s sitcoms, it’s shot on film with no laughtrack. Its production team includes “Modern Family” vet Jason Winer, former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, “Men of a Certain Age” co-creator Mike Royce and actor Josh Gad (“The Book of Mormon”), who also plays Gilchrist’s bumbling son Skip.
But the three episodes I’ve seen rely a little too much on familiar sitcom tropes while hoping the setting will make them seem fresh. In one episode, for instance, there’s a wacky misunderstanding that requires several lies to cover it up; it just happens to involve a legendary china set that could cause an international incident if the lie isn’t good enough. Sometimes it works, thanks to a game cast used well, but the idea of “1600 Penn” more often feels funnier than the show itself.
Or maybe it’s just that so much of the comic load falls on the shoulders of Gad as Skip, a well-meaning but oblivious man-child who’s like a slightly more whimsical version of Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy.” When he’s allowed to veer away from that archetype into stranger areas, Gad can be a lot of fun, but overall, the character didn’t click for me.
It feels like there’s a good show here, and one that can strike the balance between the kind of higher-concept comedies NBC seems to want now and the smarter ones it’s so eager to leave behind. But like many a new comedy – and new presidential administration – it needs a little time to get settled in before we can expect it to really make its mark.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com