In the quest to thwart delayed DVR viewing, “live” has become TV’s popular watchword. And with Neil Patrick Harris having demonstrated his diverse talents hosting every imaginable award show, it’s hard to blame NBC for wanting to see if some of that charm could be bottled and applied to a weekly series. The result, “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris,” made its debut Tuesday, yielding an energetic but slightly headache-inducing hour, one that only marginally exploited its star beyond his pleasant disposition. The result was loud and brash, but at best, a so-so time was had by all.
Adapted from a British format (a country with an established knack for this sort of fare), the series did create a wacky tone. Yet the live element was slightly overwhelmed by the amount of canned material squeezed into the premiere, including (opportunistically, to be sure) an extended section in which Harris punked the coaches on “The Voice,” NBC’s all-purpose tie-in.
Although the show injected various bits into the episode — including one where Harris had followed a couple around weeks in advance, even photo-bombing their wedding — the episode only sparked to life when Harris and guest announcer Reese Witherspoon engaged in a climbing stunt, which left the actress looking understandably flustered. What the series couldn’t sustain, the efforts of Harris and the wildly appreciative studio audience notwithstanding, was any consistent sense of spontaneity.
The biggest surprise, frankly, was that “Best Time Ever” made scant attempt — until the closing moments — to capitalize on Harris’ gifts as a song-and-dance man, instead somewhat squandering him by having the host rattle off quiz-show questions and play disguised characters. While the series had the feel of an old-time variety show, some of the most logical variety elements were noticeably scarce.
For all that, “Best Time Ever” represented a leap forward from something like Fox’s botched summer experiment “Knock Knock Live,” without capturing the sense of risk or unpredictability that has defined specials like Nik Wallenda’s high-wire stunts. While the latter might sound like a lot to ask, the request sounds more reasonable when you’ve spent the whole summer touting the show as “Live!”
In Harris, the enterprise has an innately likable ringmaster, but that will only go so far. Genial to a fault, Harris told Variety, “At worst, it fails. And if it fails, then I’ll do something else.” Harris certainly won’t have trouble finding something else to do if “Best Time Ever” doesn’t succeed. But if the host, producers and NBC would like to forestall that option for a while, seeking ways to make the series a better time — or at least a more compelling one — would probably be the prudent move.