'1600 Penn' Review: The Modern First Family
'1600 Penn' Review: The Modern First Family
John Kubicek
John Kubicek
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
1600 Penn is NBC's answer to the Emmy-winning ABC comedy Modern Family, which you can tell because they even compare the two in their ads. If you look close enough at the new sitcom about the president and his family (which airs a sneak preview Monday at 9:30pm), parallels are inevitable.

There's the cantankerous president and his younger trophy wife that his kids don't warm up to right away, like Jay and Gloria. There's an overachieving daughter who gets into some trouble, a mix of Haley and Alex. There's a loveably goofy optimist desperate for his father's approval, like Phil. And there's an overly intelligent and mature kid, like Manny.

None of this is to say that 1600 Penn isn't a good comedy worth your time. The show is amusing if not a little aimless. Like all NBC sitcoms, the elements are there but the recipe isn't quite right yet. Just look back at the early seasons of 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Community and you'll see what I mean. NBC seems incapable of making a comedy that is great from day one.

Maybe the ratings would be better if NBC filmed six episodes of every new sitcom, threw them away, then started airing season 2 without ever airing the original episodes. Think how much better The Office and Parks and Recreation would've been if their pilot episodes were "The Dundies" and "Pawnee Zoo."

1600 Penn centers on President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, much grumpier than the president he played in Independence Day) and his large family. He's remarried to Emily (Jenna Elfman), a woman desperate to make a real connection with her stepchildren.

The president's oldest son, Skip (The Book of Mormon's Josh Gad), is a total screw-up, but completely oblivious. "Nothing fazes you," his stepmom says, "Not even the things that should." He's eager to please and earnest in his desire to connect with his family. Gad is definitely the breakout star of the series, though the character could easily become grating if he doesn't grow up a little bit.

The other big complication is the president's do-gooder daughter Becca (Martha Maclsaac) who learns she's pregnant. That storyline provides most of the action for the series as her pregnancy goes public and she must figure out who that guy she hooked up with at a bar one night was.

1600 Penn comes at the end of a year that was filled with politics on TV, and not just the presidential election. HBO had the TV movie Game Change and the comedy series Veep while USA debuted the miniseries Political Animals. This is easily the least realistic depiction of political life, so you have to suspend your disbelief very quickly. A future episode features the president casually mentioning the annihilation of a terrorist base camp while the press only cares about his pregnant daughter.

The show certainly has potential, like a local politician who just needs a good campaign manager to go far. It's fun to see Pullman as the president again, and if the producers haven't booked Jeff Goldblum to play a science adviser, they should. Elfman is perfectly suited for this kind of material and could benefit from a little more character definition beyond just well-meaning stepmom.

1600 Penn isn't going to become an instant sensation, a huge beloved comedy from the start. It needs a little fixing up with the pacing and characters. But all the elements are there, and with some good direction, it could have a nice home with Parks and Recreation.

The show has a sneak preview Monday at 9:30pm following the finale performance of The Voice. 1600 Penn returns in its regular time slot, Thursdays at 9:30pm, starting January 10.

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(Image courtesy of NBC)