'1600 Penn' Can't Escape 'West Wing's' Foot Print
January 11th, 2013 7:47pm EST
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in pitch-rooms. Hearing people toss ideas back and forth for show ideas, spec scripts, the occasional web-series or sketch, eventually makes you realize that truly unique ideas are very difficult to find - and even harder to produce properly. It also makes you realize how many folks in the TV biz desperately want to be Aaron Sorkin.
Every couple of days someone would be turned onto the witty banter of The West Wing or Studio 60 or Sports Night and almost immediately pitch a show or concept that sounded curiously like something Sorkin would do. It’s like Studio 60 but with improvers. It’s like The West Wing but with Interns. It’s like Sports Night but with cable news (Okay, that one mayyyy have been done). Rinse, repeat, over and over. I immediately flashed back to these pitch meetings, and how terrifically difficult it was to not whallop my cohorts with my laptop bag with each Sorkin-esque concept, upon hearing, and viewing, NBC’s new Presidential Comedy 1600 Penn, about a dysfunctional-but-loving-family’s day to day life in both the public eye and White House. Is it a years-late West Wing parody, a humorous and fresh take on presidential politics, or somewhere inbetween?
It’s neither. It’s actually quite godawful. After viewing both the Pilot and the second episode, “The Skiplantic Ocean” on Thursday, my tepid enthusiasm for the show has been all but squashed. 1600 Penn is a show struggling for an identity whilst being haunted by the ghosts of a long cancelled show, that outdid it every conceivable way.
That show, is, of course, The West Wing - Network Television’s crowning achievement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was smart, funny, touching, serious, zany, witty, human, and most importantly, took place in an almost entirely believable world. The characters of Jed Bartlett, Leo McGary, Joshua Lyman, Sam Seaborn, and CJ Cregg, still resonate to this day among media junkies and fans of good TV, politics, and intelligent writing. 1600 Penn contains none of these things. Instead 1600 Penn finds itself a derivative post-modern sitcom that bafflingly tries to hide behind - and distance itself from, an interesting premise that so far has been wasted. A quality premise can save a show. In much the same way Castle is a standard police procedural dressed up by the presence of multi-millionaire novelist Richard Castle quipping his way through the carnage, 1600 Penn’s initial appeal depends on how much you like the idea standard sitcom situations in non-standard environments - In this case The White House.
In theory, by setting 1600 Penn in The White House, standard sitcom story-lines gain a little more pizazz. An unexpected pregnancy isn’t a family crisis, it’s a political catastrophe. A conversation about parental mood-swings should hypothetically feel fresh when done in the White House situation room among the Joint Chiefs. Letting the boss win at a game of tennis with the hopes of a promotion becomes letting the ambassador from Ecuador win because you need to get a trade deal signed. Everything old is (theoretically) new again.
Then why does 1600 Penn feel so tired? A lack of character originality probably didn’t help. The post-modern-family sitcom character cliches are all here: Befuddled-but-well-meaning father. Trophy 2nd wife. Pregnant teenage oldest daughter. Outlandish, underachieving oldest son. Teenage closeted lesbian 2nd youngest daughter (okay that one’s new). Smarty pants youngest son. These are all (more or less) commonly used, off-the-assembly-line characters we’ve seen in countless media.
Which is *okay* if the show is given time to grow, or the premise is strong enough to sustain typically cardboard characters. Can you name three traits from three characters on “Castle” other than Castle and Kate? Probably not. And if you can, it’s because that show has been on for a few years, and there’s been a chance for backstory to be explored amongst the supplementary cast.
1600 Penn, ultimately, doesn’t have that luxury. It’s a midseason show that has the gargantuan shadow of The West Wing to watch out for at every turn. Sure, everyone will tell you it’s *not* trying to fill The West Wing’s shoes, but that footprint looms large, my friends. 1600 Penn needs to *pop* now. It needs an identity, and doesn’t have one, and it appears even the cast is confused.
The talented Bill Pullman seems to be playing this entire thing straight. His President Gilchrist is not winking and nodding at the camera, not coming out of character to make jokes or asides, he, by-and-large, is the straight man. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Josh Gad’s Skip, who is a cartoon character straight out of “Tommy Boy” in more ways than one. Gad’s performance seems to come from the TJ Miller school of wispy comedy delivery, where every line is delivered just-this-side of irony, which works at say, an Improv theater, but in a scripted single camera comedy, it feels completely in-authentic. Oftentimes two characters will be having a perfectly believable conversation, only for Skip to inorganically pop in with some quip or absent minded remark. The remainder of the cast hovers somewhere in the middle. Jenna Elfman seems to be most in tune with the material, and her subplot in “The SkipLantic Ocean” involving lying to her step kids to keep a secret was serviceable, if not bizarre, considering how far-fetched it was. The real highlight of the show is Martha MacIssac, who is both human, funny, believable, and sympathetic and is probably the best part of the show. The unexpected pregnancy storyline of “The Skiplantic Ocean” was probably the (relatively) best part of the episode.
Ultimately, time is running out for 1600 Penn. As a mid-season replacement, the leash is short, far better shows have been cancelled ("Mr. Sunshine" for example), and unless 1600 Penn gets it's house in order - fast - it will be facing impeachment really quick.
Photo Credits: NBCUniversal, Inc