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For all the praise we lavish on shows that push the envelope, there’s something to be said for those that don’t — that occupy familiar territory, but do so with great charm and good cheer. That, rather than any wild reinvention, seems to be what NBC’s Tuesday night lineup is aiming for this midseason. Both American Auto and Grand Crew fall into very familiar formats — the workplace comedy and the hangout sitcom, respectively — to offer nothing much more or much less than a pleasant half-hour.
The good news is that both are blessed with funny enough writers and likable enough casts to be good for some laughs. The less-good news is that both need some time to gel. It’s easy to conceive of either American Auto or Grand Crew, or both, becoming the next broadcast show to attract a steadily growing cadre of defenders, like ABC’s Single Parents or CBS’ The Unicorn did in recent years. It’s also quite possible to imagine either or both of these shows failing to ever quite find their gear, and getting relegated to the dustbin of little-remembered sitcoms.
American Auto and Grand Crew
Airdate: Monday, Dec. 13
Cast: Ana Gasteyer, Harriet Dyer, Jon Barinholtz, Humphrey Ker, Michael B. Washington, Tye White, X Mayo
Creator: Justin Spitzer
Airdate: Tuesday, Dec. 14
Cast: Nicole Byer, Echo Kellum, Justin Cunningham, Aaron Jennings, Carl Tart, Grasie Mercedes
Creators: Phil Augusta Jackson, Dan Goor
The more polished of the two to start is Justin Spitzer’s American Auto, which can’t help but feel like an unofficial companion piece to Spitzer’s Superstore — but from the other end of the corporate hierarchy. Where the earlier series centered on the low-level grunts of a retail behemoth and the indignations they endured at the whims of mostly faceless executives, American Auto takes place around the C-suite, with Ana Gasteyer starring as newly installed Payne Motors CEO Katherine Hastings.
Surrounding her are a cast of high-level employees with differing levels of interest in kissing her ass (“More like predict which way her ass is headed, and then have your lips planted in that general vicinity,” one corrects) and differing levels of appeal. Michael W. Benjamin is an early standout as Cyrus, a product designer who knows a little too much about the differences between serial killers, spree killers and mass murderers. And if Jon Barinholtz’s Wesley — a direct descendant of the Payne in “Payne Motors” — feels just like Superstore‘s Marcus with more money, he’s still a reliable source of inappropriate WTFery, like when he tells a doctor, via a mortified employee, that nothing comes out when he masturbates.
On the other hand, milder characters like comms head Sadie (Harriet Dyer) and factory worker Jack (Tye White) struggle to make a distinct impression in the first two episodes given to critics — even as the former gets more screen time than just about anyone else, and even as the series tries to conjure sexual tension between them by way of Katherine’s ongoing assumption that the two are banging all over the office. (It’s not an especially funny joke the first time, and it does not get funnier with repetition.) That both of these characters seem earnestly passionate about cars is more confusing than enlightening, since it’s not yet clear what American Auto thinks sets the automotive industry apart from, say, pharmaceuticals or electronics.
The early episodes do retain some of the irreverent bite that eventually made Superstore such a hit. The pilot has the team scrambling to cook up a Plan B after a product announcement is derailed by the racism of artificial intelligence, while the second installment revolves around a snowballing PR nightmare that has Katherine praying for a deadly natural disaster to edge Payne out of the headlines. Work might be better paid in the corner offices and conference rooms of American Auto than it was for the big-box drones of Superstore, but it’s still mostly bullshit. In its darkest jokes, American Auto brings to mind the late, great Better Off Ted, which balanced pitch-black cynicism about the absurdities of corporate life with genuine empathy for the poor weirdos trapped inside it. With some luck, American Auto could fine-tune its way to a similar equilibrium.
For my money, though, the more intriguing new series is Phil Augusta Jackson and Dan Goor’s Grand Crew. The concept is as simple as they come: Six Black 30somethings navigate love, friendship and career together on L.A.’s Eastside, with frequent check-ins at their favorite wine bar. (Hence the title.) The series’ first two episodes are, admittedly, a bit of a mess, serving up the awkward surprises of a show still trying to figure out how wacky or heartfelt or grounded it wants to be. But when it clicks, it can be deeply funny.
The pilot opens on a cheerfully off-kilter note, with narration from an unnamed and unexplained older man (Garrett Morris) declaring that despite long-running stereotypes of Black men as “sketchy” or “arrogant,” “We have a softer, more sensitive side.” But the episode that follows feels comparatively bland, with storylines and characters that struggle to distinguish themselves from the decades of hangout sitcoms that have come before them: Hopeless romantic Noah (Echo Kellum) gets dumped; roommates Sherm (Carl Tart) and Anthony (Aaron Jennings) bicker over kombucha and toilet paper; single gal Nicky (Nicole Byer) worries that her Tinder date is secretly Republican.
Still, there are flashes of over-the-top silliness, as when Noah imagines his ex (Alesha Renee) as an inflatable tube man, down to the random dance moves. And Grand Crew‘s second episode seems much more comfortable letting its freak flag fly. One storyline follows Noah and Nicky as he tries to live out his “failed straight-to-streaming rom-com plot” fantasies by engineering a meet-cute; his disastrous past attempts to do just that are represented by a cutaway to a Love & Basketball homage that takes a decidedly unromantic turn. The other storyline begins with Paddington 2‘s ability to reduce grown adults to tears and grows out of control from there. Both plotlines are feather-light and make almost no attempt at relatability, social commentary or emotional depth. They’re just funny, and they’re funny enough that that feels like enough.
But maybe the single most promising moment of Grand Crew is the one that opens the second episode. Having finally found a new bar after Noah’s tendency to date the staff ruined the last one for them, the gang piles on with rules to prevent history from repeating itself. (Among others: Noah isn’t allowed to so much as introduce himself to the bartenders, because “it’s a slippery slope.”) It’s the most convincing demonstration of group chemistry across both episodes precisely because it feels like it just is, rather than like something the show is trying to sell.
By the end of that episode, Grand Crew still plays like a show coming into its full potential — for one thing, Fay, the sixth and final member of the core friend group, has only just been introduced to the rest of the gang. As any wine drinker knows, though, lots of bottles get better with age. At this early point in the season, Grand Crew feels too chaotic to go down as smoothly as it should. But give it time, and it could yet mellow into a perfectly balanced glass.
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