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1600 Penn: TV Review

1600 Penn Set Visit Speech - H 2012
NBCUniversal

The Bottom Line

NBC's (funny) answer to Modern Family.

Airdate

9:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17 (NBC)

Cast

Bill Pullman, Jenna Elfman, Josh Gad

"Book of Mormon's" Josh Gad steals the show as a slacker presidential son on NBC’s broad-reaching first-family comedy.

It’s a dubious idea to give a “sneak preview” of any series nearly a month in advance, but NBC might be doing the right thing with its new comedy 1600 Penn. That’s because no matter when it airs, the pilot will be funny. And the second episode funnier still. And the third as well.

NBC seems to really have something in this single-camera political comedy starring Josh GadBill Pullman and Jenna Elfman. The series, from Jason Winer (Modern Family), Gad (The Book of Mormon) and former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, also has Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age, Everybody Loves Raymond) as a showrunner and executive producer, so the pedigree is strong.

Gad, as the president’s eldest son, is a comic tornado in the first three episodes (and, no doubt, the series) and steals every scene he’s in. That’s exactly the type of performance needed to nail down a series that, like Modern Family, is seeking a wider audience than, say, the brilliant mile-a-minute snark of 30 Rock.

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Gad is so relentlessly spot-on as Skip, a slacker kid who never really has grown up -- even after seven years of college -- that he can keep the parts moving while viewers try to figure out whether the premise is ripe for jokes.

No worries there: By the second episode, 1600 Penn neatly has found its compass on how to be a show about the first family and how to define the ensemble.

The series posits Pullman as the U.S. president (begin your Independence Day jokes now), with Elfman as his second wife, Emily. The tabloids call Emily a trophy wife, but she’s educated and powerful -- she just has a hard time being accepted as stepmom by the rest of the family, particularly Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the “perfect” daughter. The first family is rounded out by preteen daughter Marigold (Amara Miller) and elementary-school-age son Xander (Benjamin Stockham).

It should be noted that Pullman works surprisingly well as a sometimes-gruff dad and commander in chief, while Elfman is allowed to ratchet down the manic nature that has defined her past roles and is instantly winning. Other than Gad, the early standout on 1600 Penn is Andre Holland as Marshall, the White House press spokesman who must put out countless fires, caused mostly by Skip. (Early press notes don’t actually indicate Marshall’s last name, but Skip calls him Marshall Mathers in the second episode, and let’s hope that sticks.)

It’s obvious this is NBC’s answer to Modern Family, and a very good answer at that. While 1600 Penn isn’t going to be all soapbox lecturing and smart, earnest politics like The West Wing, Lovett -- who has worked at the real White House -- clearly has ideas on how to make the setting provide fodder. The frenzied press corps works surprisingly well, and there’s already one member of said mob getting some great lines. Not every political bit works, and the series has yet to indicate whether it wants to tap into Veep or The Thick of It territory.

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But right out of the gate, 1600 Penn is Gad’s show. As a lovable loser with no clue or mouth muffler, he’s larger than life while also extending jokes with sublime whispered lines or little movements tacked on. It would be easy to watch Gad for 30 minutes straight, but it’s a testament to what 1600 Penn could become that the cast rises up to the material that the writers mine for them, much like Modern Family did, as the episodes roll out.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com