August 2, 2012



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1600 PENN:  TBD Midseason on NBC – If Nothing Else Is On…

Disclaimer: Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall. Pilots are often reedited and re-scored, and in some cases even recast or reshot. These critiques shouldn’t be taken as full pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.


Washington DC has been having quite the TV season.  The Firm had very little to do with its purported DC location, but Scandal embraced all the political soap it could hold, territory that Political Animals has so far trod less successfully.  HBO alone gave us a doubleheader, with its embodiment of comic cynicism Veep, and currently The Newsroom–which although technically set in New York, looks to Washington for most of its ripped-from-last-year’s-headline topics.  To all of these, in midseason NBC will add 1600 PENN, an altogether more buffoonish look at the Presidency.

Although 1600 features Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman as President Dale Gilchrist and his First Lady Emily, its protagonist is the First Son, Skip Gilchrist (Josh Gad, who also co-created the series with Jon Lovett, a former White House speechwriter).  Skip is a lovable idiot, or so the pilot keeps assuring us.  As we join the Gilchrists mid-administration, Skip has been at college for 7 years, with no particular sign of leaving any time soon.  When a prank aimed at a campus fraternity ends up setting the place on fire, the President calls him home, where in sitcom style, he’ll do all the wrong things but often by sheer chance get the right result–the difference being that instead of saving his dad’s hardware store by doing so, he’ll rescue a South American trade agreement. Apart from dealing with Skip’s blissfully clueless inanity, the secondary cause of stress in the family is the fact that Emily is the President’s second wife, and tightly-wound oldest daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and younger kids Marigold (Amara Miller) and Xander (Benjamin Stockham) don’t fully accept her as their stepmother.  Through all of this, the President’s aide Marshall Malloy (Andre Holland) tries to keep control of the First Family.

1600 Penn doesn’t aim for a very sophisticated level of humor, and it has no interest in politics other than as an occasion for silliness.  The pilot turns on the President of Brazil holding a grudge because the President beat him at jai alai, a story that peaks when Dale hits him with a tennis ball to win their rematch.  Then, of course, Skip (having set another slapstick fire in the White House earlier in the day), impresses the other South American leaders with his heartfelt naivete, and they end up doing exactly what the President wanted in the first place.

Setting this kind of holy idiot storyline in the White House probably seemed more clever than it actually is, and by the end of the pilot, Skip’s antics and goodnatured stupidity are already starting to feel one-note.  The pilot is directed by Jason Winer, who was behind the camera for the Modern Family pilot, but this one doesn’t achieve the right mix of broad comedy and genuine emotion (to be sure, this script hardly offered the same level of quality).  Directing a pilot’s co-writer has to be challenging, and Gad’s performance is sillier than it should be, although he does get mileage out of a good Pullman imitation; Pullman and Elfman are pros, but the two of them, especially Pullman, have little to do in the pilot other than play familiar roles of exasperated dad and trying-too-hard stepmom.

It may be a promising sign that in series, 1600 Penn will be run by Mike Royce, who was a senior producer for years on Everybody Loves Raymond, a show that constantly found unexpected nuance in what could have been sitcom cliches.  There’s some potential in the idea of a comedy about an ordinary family who happen to be running the country–but it needs to be smarter and sharper than 1600 Penn currently is.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."