1600 Penn quickly announces itself as a slapsticky, family-driven alternative to HBO’s restlessly scathing Veep. NBC’s new single-camera sitcom does an adequate job of introducing its major players in the otherwise dull pilot, with President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman) depicted as a strict, super-hetero type who occasionally shows his soft side, and Jenna Elfman as Gilchrist’s second wife, Emily, who, surprisingly, isn’t shoehorned into an evil-stepmother role, instead spending much of the show’s early episodes attempting to gain the trust of her adopted brood. But even as the initial primary subplot involving overachieving daughter Becca’s (Martha MacIsaac) pregnancy following a drunken one-night stand throws an already emotionally disconnected family into further chaos, the writing is dramatically weightless, hinging one overused trope after another.
If there’s one thing that keeps this remarkably by-the-numbers political farce afloat, it’s co-creator Josh Gad’s ability to effortlessly chew scenery with his unique brand of schlubby comical bravura. But save for his strangely charming performance as the president’s perpetually offbeat son Skip, who spends the majority of his time accidentally setting fires, launching into amateur magic-trick routines, barging in on press conferences, and providing fodder for late-night hosts with his zany activities in the executive mansion, the remainder of the Gilchrist clan is simply a bore to watch. They’re like oil and water, hardly seeming like much of a cohesive unit at all until forced into all-too-perfect sitcom coincidences and mix-ups seemingly recycled from Modern Family. After using the Situation Room’s technology to track down the father of Becca’s unborn child, President Gilchrist sends the Secret Service to the Old Navy store where the jockish and clueless D.B. (Robbie Amell) is snatched up and brought back to the Oval Office for an impromptu interrogation. Pullman is no stranger to playing our nation’s commander in chief, and he’s instantly acceptable as the president here, but his comedic beats are frequently mishandled, highlighted by his inability to play off Gad’s loony banter or Elfman’s bouncy sarcasm, and unable to break free of his cookie-cutter confused/mad dad stereotype.
1600 Penn may indeed have a future, but only if it can push Gad firmly to the forefront and simultaneously mold its other characters into more than just repackaged versions of tired clichés. For every unrivaled, unorthodox mannerism or line reading delivered by the pudgy dynamo, the series churns out yawn-worthy sequences that amount to very little character-building, like Emily breaking a set of antique Austrian tableware that was intended to impress that country’s visiting ambassador, or Becca giving her flawed relationship with D.B. a second chance after a cloying father-daughter meeting of the minds. It’s not that these are shoddily crafted personalities, it’s that their predicaments have been done to death, and frankly, executed with much more thoughtfulness on other shows.