Oh, NBC. We sincerely hope that airing a sneak peak of a new show a week before Christmas -- when most folks are busy finishing their shopping, tying up loose ends at work before vacations, or catching up on the DVR'ed finales of favorites like "Homeland" or "Survivor" that they were too busy to watch last weekend -- and three weeks before it is scheduled to start its initial midseason run (and on a different night to boot) does not send this show down the path of "Bent," the funny-but-failed sitcom that starred Amanda Peet and Jeffrey Tambor. The new show is "1600 Penn."
Because while the pilot is at times a little clunky, this (first) family comedy has the potential to leave audiences all hailing to the chief and his quirky clan. Episode No. 1 jumped headfirst into a day in the White House life of the steely President Gilchrist, played confidently by Bill Pullman; his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman); his hardworking, put-upon press secretary, Marshall (Andre Holland); and his four children. There's Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the perfect one, whose first slip winds up being the doozy of unplanned pregnancy after a one-night stand. Marigold (Amara Miller) is questioning her sexuality and has a crush on the same Jessica who has caught the eye of her mature-for-his-age, zinger-spewing brother Xander (Benjamin Stockham).
Jenna Elfman gives a tour of the White House set:
But the real reason to come back next month is the oldest son, Skip, who has returned to the fold after seven years in college and no diploma to show for it. A prank gone wrong that resulted in a fire at a frat house is the last straw. He's an overweight, clumsy, socially awkward, uncouth man-child who means well, loves his family, and is desperately seeking Dad's approval. It could easily be played way over the top, but Josh Gad (who won raves in "The Book of Mormon" and whose last regular TV gig was "Back to You," with Kelsey Grammer) gives the role just the right ratio of goof to heart.
Which made it even more shocking to hear, when visiting the L.A. set last week, that Gad, who created the series with executive producers Jon Lovett and Jason Winer and writes for it, was at first adamantly opposed to playing Skip. "I fought with Jason and Jon about it. I'd done that kind of thing before and felt it was important not to do that kind of thing in my career right now," Gad explained. "But when I started to see the brilliant writing on the page, I was like, 'If I see anybody else playing this role, I'll be deeply pissed off. I gotta tackle it.' Skip can bring the physical comedy, is absolutely causing chaos, and is a whirlwind, but at the same time is a golden retriever. It is those two paradigms that I try to juxtapose in every episode."
Josh Gad discusses the conflict his off-the-wall character creates in the White House:
In episodes that follow, viewers will come to see Skip as the emotional center. Although he can't be trusted to keep secrets, he's a great listener, sometimes gives good advice, and on occasion backs into saving the day. "You will see some really touching episodes where Skip has an emotional response to what's been done or what he's done. In his relationship with the family, especially with his dad, there's a real funny and beautiful arc there."
Winer added that finding the balance is one of the hardest and most important tasks in each episode. "Skip is actually really great at some things -- most notably, communicating emotions. He has a lot to teach all the members of this family. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and if there is one thing his father has to learn, it's how to share emotions. That is what makes him more than a caricature."
There are also so many places for the series to go, and plot lines are derived from a variety of sources -- historical anecdotes, Lovett's past White House employment as a speechwriter for President Obama, and, most often, the real-life families of all involved. "We thought this world would be a great place to tell ordinary family stories in an unexpected way," Lovett said. "We [wanted to] do a family show that used politics to raise the stakes but that didn't drown out the more relatable elements because that gives us an incredibly open territory to explore. Mostly the stories aren't born from newspapers; they're drawn from writers'-room conversations about our own families."
It's too early to tell if we'll go wing nuts for "1600 Penn," but the state of the union is looking good. Let us know what you thought of the sneak-peek installment in comments.
Watch the full episode:
"1600 Penn" premieres Thursday, 1/10 at 9:30 PM on NBC.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Jenna Elfman
- Jenna Elfman
- Josh Gad
- Josh Gad