The Bottom Line
- Stars Bill Pullman, Jenna Elfman, Josh Gad, Martha MacIsaac, Andre Holland, Amara Miller, Benjamin Stockham
- Created by Jon Lovett, Josh Gad and Jason Winer
- Premieres December 17, 2012, at 9:30 p.m. EST on NBC; subsequent episodes air Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST starting January 10, 2013
Bill Pullman is good at being presidential, at least, as he proved 16 years ago in Independence Day, when he played a U.S. president who rallies humanity to fight off an alien invasion. In 1600 Penn, Pullman’s President Dale Gilchrist doesn’t face anything as dire as aliens attacking; instead he’s stuck with his exasperating family, and he ends up being just another in a long line of clueless sitcom dads. The pilot focuses most of its attention on Gilchrist’s son Skip (series co-creator Josh Gad, best known for his Tony-nominated role in The Book of Mormon), a somewhat dim-witted slacker who’s spent seven years in college without graduating and is moving back home to figure his life out. Gad’s lovable-doofus shtick as Skip gets old quickly, and subsequent episodes at least balance him out with his younger sister Becca (Martha MacIsaac), a hyper-competent college student whose life is derailed when she discovers she’s pregnant.
Gilchrist also has two younger children, Xander (Benjamin Stockham) and Marigold (Amara Miller), whose roles are less prominent, and a second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who struggles to connect with her stepchildren (Gilchrist is naturally a widower, since only one divorced man, Ronald Reagan, has ever been elected president). It’s a pretty basic sitcom-family setup, and the show only has one regular character, press secretary Marshall Malloy (Andre Holland), from the president’s political team. So this is definitely not The West Wing as a sitcom, but the creators don’t seem to know how to successfully balance the family dynamics with the larger political world, and the result is that tired sitcom plotlines just get slightly made over in political terms (the First Lady accidentally breaks all the priceless Austrian China just as the White House is hosting a dinner for the Austrian chancellor; the president talks to his military advisers about why he can’t connect with Becca).
The political issues that do arise (an economic agreement with South American countries; the targeting of a terrorist cell) are treated with the same lightness as broken dishes or contrived misunderstandings, which makes the show politically toothless. Even as Becca’s pregnancy balloons into a scandal, the show still treats it pretty much the same as any other wacky sitcom development. 1600 Penn might have been better if it was more over the top (along the lines of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s misbegotten That’s My Bush!) or more bitingly satirical (like Veep, or even Parks and Recreation) or at least more obvious about being a bland family sitcom full of rote life lessons. But it doesn’t go far enough in any of those directions, and instead offers only half-hearted versions of all three.