On NBC’s 1600 Penn, Josh Gad plays sweet doofus Skip Gilchrist. Skip has been dawdling in college for seven years and is forced to move back home after a frat prank goes horribly wrong. The incident becomes national news because, for Skip, home is the White House and his father Dale, played by Bill Pullman, is the President of the United States (yes, Pullman is to the presidency, what Morgan Freeman is to God).
Skip is oafish but he’s also hopelessly optimistic. “Nothing fazes you,” says Skip’s stepmother Emily (Jenna Elfman), “not even the stuff that should.” If this premise sounds familiar to you that’s because it’s basically Tommy Boy set against a farcical political backdrop. Or now that I think about it, 1600 Penn is probably closer to Black Sheep because that movie was also basically Tommy Boy but set against a farcical political backdrop. Chris Farley movies aside, 1600 Penn is energetic and worth a look-see if only for Gad.
Gad, who in addition to starring is the co-creator, is the centerpiece here and his performance makes the sense of déjà vu that you might experience while watching the show tolerable. As a stage actor (he previously starred in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Broadway musical The Book of Mormon), he brings a nice, nuanced theatricality to this iteration of the man-child. In the show’s pilot episode (which aired on Monday as sneak preview to a season that won’t actually begin until January 10), we mostly see Gad broad and physical – when he greets his sister Becca (Martha Maclsaac) for the first time since returning home, he snatches her up and violently, but also sort of adorably, swings her around like a ragdoll. Other times, though, he conveys so much humor through his subtle delivery. One of the best lines from the pilot comes when Skip is sitting at his father’s desk in the Oval Office and while taking in his surroundings very thoughtfully says, “so much history here, right? Roosevelt, Superman…” Through it all, Gad is able to turn middling jokes into genuinely funny moments.
The rest of the show’s dysfunctional clan take a back seat to Skip (just as the rest of the actors, though all fine in their roles, take a back seat to Gad). Pullman plays his part soberly – the President is Skip’s foil, after all – but that seriousness is tempered by sporadic silliness (after winning a game of squash against a foreign dignitary he screams “America wins”), which ends up making him a likable if not yet fully realized character. As the President’s second wife, Elfman has considerably toned down the Dharma and Greg quirkiness and it works. Her character is only embraced by Skip and openly despised by the President’s eldest, high-strung daughter Becca. The two other Gilchrist kids, Xander (Benjamin Stockham) and Marigold (Amara Miller) barely have personalities at the moment but a plot hinted at toward the end of the first episode involving their school crushes has some potential. Their real function, though, simply seems to be adding fuel to the tension that exists between Emily and Becca – the kids confide in their older sister and not their stepmom.
The episode closes with the Gilchrists at a pizza parlor, which is supposed to show that despite their address, they’re just a regular family. Ending on that tender, “everything is going to be OK” note seems a little too heartwarming for this kind of comedy (a comedy that has a flaming jacket flying out of a White House window) but that’s mitigated by one final gag. The scene cuts to a street view and we see that this regular family moment is only possible because the entire neighborhood has been blocked off and police and secret service are guarding the restaurant. They are a normal but at the same time they aren’t a normal. That message extends to the show as a whole, which strikes a few normal, or rather, expected notes but has that slight tweak (mainly in the form of Gad’s impressive comedic timing) that makes it special.