Ana Gasteyer — a shrewd, funny comedian adept at puncturing her characters’ pretensions — has long deserved a showcase. “Saturday Night Live” contemporaries of hers including Maya Rudolph and Molly Shannon have recently had strong and striking second acts on TV, and Gasteyer’s turn comes in the form of “American Auto,” a sitcom about a car company and its self-assured new CEO.
And it’s Gasteyer who represents the most compelling reason to watch this show, which over its first two episodes is in the process of finding its voice. Created by “Superstore’s” Justin Spitzer, “American Auto” most keenly gives the sense of a network attempt to channel the scabrousness of “Veep” or “Succession.” Like those shows, this NBC series features a bunch of functionaries striving for the approval of a capricious and often short-sighted leader. But the early going suggests a show that is still figuring out what it wants to say.
Katherine Hastings, played by Gasteyer, has entered the auto industry from pharmaceuticals, and doesn’t quite realize how much she doesn’t know. Her oafishness takes a different form from, say, Michael Scott’s; she has the smooth assurance of an exec who is accustomed to being accommodated. A running joke involves Katherine’s paranoia that two of her employees (Tye White and Harriet Dyer) are secretly having sex in the office, which Gasteyer carries across with a sly wit even as the material mistakes crassness for real wit.
Nailing the tone is an issue for “American Auto,” whose first two episodes center stories that move into real discomfort — for instance, the company trying to figure out how to respond to a serial murderer driving victims around in one of their cars. The show hasn’t quite earned our trust enough to push this far into the extreme: We’re still learning who the characters are as we see them respond humorously to violent crime.
The ensemble is strong — White and Dyer are appealing, and Michael B. Washington’s measured delivery is always a treat. And if the show’s attempts to exhibit real edge may make viewers cringe, Gasteyer provides a strong reason to keep watching.
“American Auto’s” first two episodes get a preview airing Monday, Dec. 13, at 10 p.m. ET/PT before the show’s launch Tuesday, Jan. 4.