Preview: 1600 Penn 1×1 (NBC)

The West Wing meets Modern Family meets anti-comedy

1600 Penn

In the US: Thursdays, 9.30/8.30c, NBC. Starts January 10

In US TV, there’s the thing called ‘development’. It’s when someone comes to a TV network with an idea for a show, except it doesn’t quite work. So the idea goes into development so that the problems can be solved, ideally before it goes into production.

Of course, even then, it’s not too late for the show to change. Take The West Wing. Originally, the president wasn’t going to show up at all – he would only ever be talked about, but would never appear. But come the pilot episode, the President needed to appear, the producers cast Martin Sheen and the rest is history.

But sometimes, despite all these safety valves, one big, looming, giant black hole of a problem can’t be removed, usually as a result of politics, sometimes because it’s one of the executive producers or it’s even the person who came up with the idea for the TV show in the first place.

To preserve some air of mystery and suspense, I’ll let you guess what the problem is with 1600 Penn – a sort of West Wing meets Modern Family set in the White House – that couldn’t be removed before it aired. I’ll give you a clue: have a look at the cast photo.

Here’s a trailer if you need any more clues:

The Gilchrists are just the average American family dealing with all the everyday issues, like a grown kid who’s forced to move back home, teenagers who are smarter than their teachers and a stepmom (Jenna Elfman) desperately trying to win over the kids. They’re loving, fun and a little crazy. In other words, just like everyone else – with one exception: they live in a very special house. The White House! Whether it’s entertaining foreign dignitaries, holding secret cabinet meetings or putting out fires – figuratively and sometimes literally – there’s never a dull moment in the Gilchrist White House. For example, the First Son (Josh Gad, star of the Broadway sensation “The Book of Mormon”) is one of the administration’s biggest liabilities but also the glue that holds this family together. The President (Bill Pullman) knows too well that the only thing harder than being Head of State is being head of the family. Also starring are Martha MacIsaac (“Superbad”), Andre Holland (“Friends with Benefits”), Amara Miller (“The Descendants”) and Benjamin Stockham (“Sons of Tucson”).

“Modern Family” meets “The West Wing” in this election-year comedy from Emmy-winning executive producer/director Jason Winer (“Modern Family”). The executive producers are Winer, Gad and Jon Lovett (former White House speechwriter). Winer also directed the pilot. “1600 Penn” is produced by 20th Century Fox.

Is it any good?
You know, if you stick your thumb in front of the TV screen and shout “La, la, la, la!” whenever Josh Gad appears, it’s actually not a bad comedy. Not brilliant, but okay. But if you don’t, you’ll pray for nuclear armageddon – or at least stare vengefully at the nearest clock, wanting to know why time moves so slowly.

Essentially, 1600 Penn‘s conceit is that the First Family is just like any family and the people who work in the White House, whether they’re the press secretary, admirals, generals or foreign dignitaries, are just like the co-workers or clients you’ll come across at any small business. And that’s reasonably funny. Not often laugh out loud funny, but occasionally – in the first episode, we get the leaders of South America smarting over how Brazil is such a bully, coupled with taunts over America’s declining manufacturing base.

It’s got a good cast, too. Bill Pullman is essentially reprising his Independence Day role of a former war hero turned President; Jenna Elfman cancels out any residual hate you may still feel towards her for Accidentally On Purpose as a former lawyer and political operative who marries the President and has to get both the press and his family to like her (and not think of her as a trophy wife); and Martha MacIsaac from Greek and Superbad (who replaced Brittany Snow after a table read-through so clearly the producers weren’t adverse to removing things they didn’t like) puts in a pleasing performance as the otherwise perfect eldest daughter who finds out she’s pregnant.

And were the whole show to be about this family and to be focused on that set-up, it would actually be quite smart and fun.

Except it’s not. It’s really about Josh Gad, the moronic overgrown man-child son of the President, who moves back into the White House when another one of his college pranks fails. His sole function is to perform acts of slapstick and to say stupid things.

Every scene Gad is in has the comedic value of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 section 33. Even the sweet release of death still wouldn’t be enough to erase the sheer awfulness of those scenes from your poor soul’s memory. It’s not because Gad is talentless, because he’s clearly not (he does a good Bill Pullman impression, anyway). It’s just terrible writing for a terrible character.

If there were some way to rip Gad’s character out of the show completely, the show would have the possibility of being good. But it’s so architected round him, despite his character’s fundamental embodiment of anti-comedy, that it doesn’t stand a chance of ever making right completely, even if they sideline him.

So my advice is run. Run for the hills. Whatever you do don’t watch 1600 Penn. It’ll be cancelled before the end of the season, probably even sooner.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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