January 11, 2013

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “1600 Penn”


1600 PENN:  Thursday 9:30PM on NBC

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’

Previously… on 1600 PENN:  The First Family, it turns out, is as screwed up as any other.  President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman) presides over a tribe that includes second wife Emily (Jenna Elfman) and four kids:  good-natured imbecile Skip (co-creator Josh Gad), out of college after 7 years with no degree; Becca (Martha MacIsaac), a seemingly responsible law student until revealed as pregnant by a one-night stand; and precocious youngsters Xander (Benjamin Stockham) and Marigold (Amara Miller).  Meanwhile, Press Secretary Marshall Malloy (Andre Holland) tries to keep a lid on the family’s various disasters.

Episode 2:  There are rumors that at some point in 1600 Penn‘s run (the show was ordered last May, so it’s been in production for a while), it’s going to improve.  You certainly couldn’t tell that from the first regular episode, written by showrunner/Executive Producer Mike Royce and directed by co-creator Jason Winer.  Based on the evidence to date, 1600 has exactly one card in its deck:  the idea of taking a low-grade wacky-family sitcom and setting it in the White House.  And not for purposes of political satire or commentary, either (even though the third co-creator is Jon Lovett, a former genuine White House speechwriter), but merely to accent the wackiness.  They might as well have set the show on the moon, or underwater.

The new episode followed from the events of the pilot and its reveal of Becca’s pregnancy.  Emily tried her best to keep Marigold and Xander from hearing the news–because Becca wanted to tell them herself–by feeding them increasingly far-fetched lies, while Becca spent the day unwinding in the White House pool with Skip after he drowned her phone, the President asked his military advisors how they cope with their own kids, and the press chomped at the bit.  It all played out mechanically, until everything ended up OK at the end.  There wasn’t a gag in the episode that reached for a level of even moderate intelligence, and the relentless aren’t-we-funny?!? desperation in the performances became somewhat alarming to watch.

Even though his role in the second episode was less central than in the pilot, how one feels about 1600 Penn is likely to be guided by one’s reaction to Skip and Gad, who seem to be the show’s guiding spirits.  Gad is an extremely talented guy, hilarious in The Book of Mormon on Broadway.  But he didn’t write Book of Mormon, and here, with control over his own role, he’s obnoxiously self-indulgent, pushing Skip’s stupidity to the point where he seems to suffer from actual intellectual development issues.  Pullman and Elfman have proven their talent over many years, but both are grindingly over the top here, and MacIsaac bears the brunt of the so-far major plot turn.  There isn’t a smile, let alone a laugh, to be had.

More than anything else, 1600 Penn resembles this season’s other high-concept family sitcom, ABC’s The Neighbors.  But–and this comes from no fan of The Neighbors–at least that show has a modicum of wit and a bit of cleverness about its alien-civilization view of Earth.  1600 Penn thinks an address alone will be enough to make it funny.  It’s not.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

PILOT + 1:  Maybe Check Back In a Month To See If It’s Truly Improved–Otherwise, Stay Away.

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."