In the wake of some wildly successful television sitcoms, it seems as if there has never been a better era for the genre. From Modern Family to Parks and Recreation, today’s sitcoms are as poignant as they are hilarious. Unfortunately, we are often reminded this success is by no means a given — and although 1600 Penn tries admirably, it fails to meet the high standards of its contemporaries.
As the title suggests, 1600 Penn follows the exploits of a fictional first family, the Gilchrists. The President, (a gruff Bill Pullman) is the strong-willed patriarch who towers over his overstressed wife (Jenna Elfman) and his four children. While the three youngest are shining examples of well-mannered politicians-in-training, the eldest child, Skip (Josh Gad), is a black sheep. After seven years of college, the awkward man-child comes home to wreak havoc on this seemingly average White House family.
Although this all sounds good on paper — who doesn’t love The West Wing? — the execution is less than ideal. Primarily among the show’s pitfalls is the rather formulaic cast of caricatures the writers have created. Pullman, a more than adequate actor, simply plays an aging replica of the many fictional presidents we’ve seen before. Elfman, the one-dimensional shrill wife, along with the show’s three younger children, are hardly ever given comedic lines. This leaves Gad to be the linchpin that holds everything together. But don’t look to the man-child to save the show — Gad sinks it by coming off as buffoonish and annoying.
Despite such pitfalls, I did get a few laughs out of the show. I want to emphasize the word “few”, as I only watched three full episodes. The characters may be poorly conceived, but it is the script that really brings the show down. Good sitcoms have well-written jokes that lead to even funnier reactions from other characters. In shows like The Office and 30 Rock, it is often Jim (John Krasinski) or Liz’s (Tina Fey) reactions to the absurdity going on around them that creates comedic gold. In 1600 Penn, the “jokes” come at a rapid-fire pace, leaving no time for laughter. Instead of characters’ reacting to one another, they simply move on to the next line.
Instead of letting the humor speak for itself, the writers rely on overblown rants and painfully awkward exchanges. The result is more likely to produce groans than genuine laughs.
The story line also puts an unhealthy emphasis on Skip. No matter what problem the family faces, Skip will swoop in to make it worse, but then somehow save the day. The show would benefit greatly from more focus on the family as a whole and less on its most frustrating character.
If you’re in the market for a new program, tune in on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. to at least give the show a chance to get better. My favorite sitcom, Parks and Recreation, had a rough start and didn’t hit its stride until its second season. But don’t get your hopes up — 1600 Penn looks to be a one-term presidency.