With fewer than 25 minutes to introduce a compelling story and cast of characters, the makers of broadcast-network comedy pilots have one of the hardest jobs in television. It’s no wonder, then, that so many turn to familiar shortcuts and archetypes in order to get through all the necessary exposition as quickly as possible. The trick is finding ways to intrigue beyond the basics and show some hint of unique personality, besides. “Perfect Harmony,” NBC’s new comedy about a scrappy church choir entering the competitive circuit, acquits itself pretty well by the end of its first episode — especially because it somehow speeds through enough plot to fuel an entire season of “Glee” (the most obvious reference point for “Perfect Harmony”).
Lesley Wake Webster’s script wastes no time introducing us to Arthur (executive producer Bradley Whitford), a cantankerous former choral director who left Princeton for his Kentucky wife, who’s since died and left him surlier than ever. Within just a few minutes, Arthur stumbles into a scattered choir rehearsal, excoriates everyone present, passes out drunk, and wakes up to a job offer. From there, the episode becomes a blur of character portraits, most notably Anna Camp’s determined single mom Ginny, Geno Segers’ gentle giant (who’s in love with Ginny) and Rizwan Manji as the well-meaning reverend whose pop culture references are all pointedly censored. Camp in particular quickly finds her own peppy groove opposite Whitford, while Manji gets some of the pilot’s biggest laughs. Hopefully comedian Tymberlee Hill, tapping in as an alto in denial, will get far more to do going forward.
But the pilot belongs squarely to Arthur, which might have backfired were it not for Whitford. The part of a know-it-all guy swaggering in to impart his superior knowledge is a time-honored TV tradition, but also a very tired one, so the moments that Whitford takes to show Arthur’s reluctantly human side aren’t just a relief, but necessary. They’re also, as anyone who’s seen a similar premise knows, rather inevitable. So even if this introductory episode feels a little rushed, it’s frankly promising that “Perfect Harmony” isn’t bothering to pretend like Arthur is going to be impenetrable forever. Might as well fast forward to the part where he lets these earnest underdogs into his life so the cast and characters alike can settle in and help the show find a more singular voice.
“Perfect Harmony” premieres Thursday, September 26 at 8:30 pm on NBC.
One episode watched for review.