Fictionalized backstage politics has been in fashion this election year, from HBO’s “Veep” to USA’s “Political Animals.” NBC takes the plunge comedically with “1600 Penn,” a series vehicle for “The Book of Mormon’s” Josh Gad that’s essentially a mash-up of two 1990s Chris Farley movies, “Black Sheep” and “Tommy Boy.” NBC will preview the show behind “The Voice” before it takes up residence in January after “The Office,” which isn’t much of a lift anymore. Despite big sight gags and an unexpected serialized aspect through the early episodes, uneven execution should leave viewers feeling as divided as the country.
Gad certainly seems to be channeling the late Farley as Skip, the oafish, childlike son of the President of the United States (Bill Pullman, at least spared the alien invasion he faced in “Independence Day”). After seven unproductive years in college, Skip masterminds a spectacularly errant prank that prompts dad to summon him back to the White House.
There, he joins his trio of siblings — including the presumably perfect sister (Martha MacIsaac), who unleashes her own scandal — and the president’s “trophy wife,” Emily (Jenna Elfman), a bit too sympathetic in her desire to win over the kids to make one instantly think of Callista Gingrich, who was probably the model.
Enthusiastic but dense, Skip is largely oblivious to what a screw-up he is, which includes — in the premiere — potentially botching a giant Latin America trade deal the president is seeking to engineer. (The less said about the solution, which involves tequila shots, the better.)
As crafted by former White House speech writer Jon Lovett (who co-created the show with director Jason Winer and Gad), “1600 Penn” only occasionally yields convincing bite, even with the predictable use of NBC talent in episodes previewed (Jay Leno, Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough, Willie Geist) to help foster the illusion of edge.
Yes, there have been presidential family members who invited satire (first brother Billy Carter comes to mind), but despite his D.C. pedigree, Lovett keeps only a little toe planted in reality. Like “Veep,” the series also tepidly avoids partisan affiliation, at least initially.
Although surrounded by a pretty strong ensemble, Gad’s shtick begins wearing thin, in the way listening to an adult speak baby talk might. And while there’s room for epic crises and miscues against this backdrop, the show seems determined to keep violating “Seinfeld’s” “No hugging, no learning” rule in the end. Blame it, no doubt, on another prominent TV family of the “Modern” variety.
That’s not to say “1600 Penn” is without some clever moments, but in an age where politics gets dissected in such minute detail — leaving many viewers understandably jaded by the convergence of campaigns and reality TV — the series doesn’t generate nearly enough highlights to merit a filibuster-proof yea vote, much less a ticker-tape parade.