It’s perhaps bad timing that Neil Patrick Harris currently can be seen in a beer commercial promising that somebody — definitely not Neil Patrick Harris — will give consumers their money back if said beer is not, in fact, the best light beer they’ve ever tasted.
This is a precedent the former How I Met Your Mother star and TV uber-host probably doesn’t want to be encouraging, lest several million viewers decide to make it clear to NBC that Harris’ new live variety show, which premiered Tuesday night on NBC, did not come close to fulfilling its promise of being the “best time ever,” at least not in its first attempt. Perhaps some notes in modesty needed to be taken from the title of the original series the show is based on, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.
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To be fair, Neil Patrick Harris — henceforth to be called mostly “NPH” — absolutely looked like he was having one of his best times ever, as did the audience member who won a car and a bunch of other nifty sponsored prizes in a closing segment. That’s a low introductory yield, but I think Best Time Ever aspires to more than that and has some potential if its host, executive producer and do-everything star can find a way to be a little bit more generous about spreading the humor in what was initially a very internalized hour of variety programming. Other than the prizes, NPH’s greatest generosity probably was giving Carrot Top, usually only spotted in lucrative Las Vegas captivity, the national exposure he’s been lacking since the box-office underperformance of Chairman of the Board.
I take that back. NPH was also quite generous to NBC, wasting I Can Do That veteran Nicole Scherzinger as his consistently underutilized girl Friday, inviting American Ninja Warrior host Matt Iseman to host a midshow competition stunt, chatting with NBC jack-of-all-trades Carson Daly sandwiched around a candid-camera segment pranking the stars of The Voice and dedicating several questions in the climactic trivia game to news about an NBC series (The Celebrity Apprentice) and the box-office triumph of sibling studio Universal’s Minions. It’s a point of minor astonishment that NPH’s first celebrity-guest announcer was his Gone Girl producer Reese Witherspoon, who actually hasn’t had a movie distributed by Universal in years.
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Tasked with introductions and banal banter with NPH, Witherspoon was a terrific sport, retaining a broad smile throughout and proving herself worthy of far more than “ditzy blonde” repartee. NPH showed his appreciation by goading Witherspoon into competing against him on a high-wire challenge outside, laughing nervously as she professed her fear of heights and then beating the Oscar winner to the top of a towering platform and the bottom of a zip line. For future reference: When an A-list actress graces your show with her presence, straps into an uncomfortable-looking harness and braves even the most minor of phobias … you let her win. It’s not chauvinistic. It’s not condescending. It’s just gracious hosting because over the course of the hour, we got to hear NPH sing, do an impressive flip off of a pogo stick and do a less impressive Austrian accent. We didn’t need to see proof that he could beat a guest at a contest he’d had the opportunity to psych himself up for previously.
“How could you let Reese Witherspoon not win that?” Daly asked NPH incredulously, speaking for all of America in that moment. If Daly could avoid whipping out his own live-TV résumé to chide NPH with, NPH could let Witherspoon win a game.
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But a lot of things in the episode were about NPH when they probably needed to be about other people. An opening sketch called “Best Days of Your Life” found NPH revealing to an Alabama couple that he secretly had been following them all summer, from the Crimson Tide football opener to their ritzy New York City hotel and right into the wedding bed. The couple sat with expressions that were much more “perplexed” than “amused” as NPH chronicled his summer of stalking, patting himself on the back for dressing as a mascot, slumming it as a bellhop and, again, humping and writhing on the bed in which they spent their first night as a married couple. Only when he gave the pair a tropical honeymoon did they seem to accept that this particular nightmare was over, but you can bet that they’ll be double-checking their luggage and birth control when they get to Antigua.
The intervention of NPH surveillance technology also came into play in a live karaoke bit, this time upstaging Gloria Gaynor.
Even the segment in which NPH played Jergen Vollmer, a Jeremy Davies-esque host of Austria’s The Voice, became an NPH-only showcase as he even auditioned for NBC’s The Voice judges. We got very few reactions from the judges, but we watched NPH watch himself for the whole song. When he revealed his true identity as the star of The Smurfs to Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and company, they complimented him for his prank and even raved at how expertly bad his rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” had been.
The disappointing thing is that Neil Patrick Harris is unquestionably a man of great and varied talents. Some sweating under the hot studio lights aside, his mixture of polished smarminess and authenticity is exactly what a show like Best Time Ever requires, and I wasn’t kidding when I praised his flip off of the pogo stick. That was nuts. But in an episode this self-laudatory, addressing an audience member with “… and now you’re standing up here with Neil Patrick Harris from TV. How’s it feel? It’s almost like you’ve won already” came across as more earnest than intended.
A very real possibility is that for the first episode of Best Time Ever, NPH felt the full weight of launching a new variety show and took it upon himself to be more of the focal point than he otherwise would have preferred. Maybe that meant more NPH-centric filmed bits than he ideally would want to do on a live show? Maybe it meant less distribution of material to his co-stars? Witherspoon mentioned she won an Oscar for celebrity karaoke, and she’s America’s sweetheart. Let us love her. Scherzinger gyrated and smiled fetchingly, but she’s a trained live performer, and she’s got skills to do far more than that. Little NPH, the star’s pint-sized alter ego, was spotted reading Gone Girl and later had to lip-sync to a Pitbull song, but maybe he’ll be used more when Best Time Ever moves up to its new 8 p.m. slot on Sept. 29.
I like the idea of Best Time Ever and would love to see this and Maya Rudolph‘s variety thing and even live episodes of Undateable encourage more network risk-taking. For that to happen, future episodes will have to be the best time ever for more than just Neil Patrick Harris.