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NBC show puts aside partisanship for laughs
LOS ANGELES — After putting yet another wearying, bitterly fought national election behind us, do we really need a sitcom set in the White House?
Yes, said Jason Winer, a creator of NBC’s newcomer “1600 Penn,” because it’s about a family in a colorful setting, not politics, and because it’s a custom-made showcase for “The Book of Mormon” sensation Josh Gad, not part of a partisan agenda.
Mr. Winer and Mr. Gad met when the actor auditioned for the “Modern Family” pilot directed by Mr. Winer. Mr. Gad jumped to Broadway instead for “some silly play,” as a wisecracking Mr. Winer put it. Fast forward, and the two were noodling about a project to collaborate on.
“He does such a great job playing a lovable idiot man-child,” Mr. Winer said of the actor who excels at chubby-cheeked impishness. “We tried to figure out an environment for that, like a bull in a china shop. And what’s the biggest china shop in the world? It’s the White House.”
Expensive china gets broken, and not just figuratively, in “1600 Penn” (9:30 p.m. Thursday), which serves up large helpings of silliness and slapstick ignited by Mr. Gad.
He plays Skip, the free-spirited, bumbling oldest child of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, a mellower chief executive than in “Independence Day“) and stepson to first lady and lawyer Emily (Jenna Elfman). His siblings include the chronically perfect Becca (Martha MacIsaac), whose one slip led to a one-night-stand pregnancy.
Mr. Gad is a solo whirlwind but benefits from comedic chemistry with sitcom pro Miss Elfman (“Dharma and Greg”). She gets to display her Michelle Obama-esque toned arms, which in one episode delivered a right hook to media banality with help from a real NBC journalist.
When the president and first lady take part in a TV interview to lobby for a key education bill, an insistent Savannah Guthrie of “Today” instead wants Emily to share exercise tips for those great pipes.
It’s the kind of swipe that the show may take at Washington itself while remaining apolitical, said Mr. Winer, adding, “I think people will be hard-pressed to determine what party the president is a member of.”
Such careful neutrality is typical for TV shows despite Hollywood’s reputation as a liberal bastion, according to Tim Brooks, a former network executive and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”
His book includes several examples, including mostly fluffy sitcoms “The Governor and J.J.” and “Benson.” Its scant exceptions include “The West Wing,” with a hard-charging Democratic president played by Martin Sheen.
The reason is simple, Mr. Brooks said.
“Controversy and selling cars and soap don’t go together very well. Sponsors usually run from that sort of thing,” he said. Networks, whether broadcast or basic cable, “don’t want to take chances to alienate advertisers.”
Premium cable network can be bolder, which is why HBO is home to “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s new drama “The Newsroom.” Series star Jeff Daniels plays an anchor who’s emboldened to uncover the “truth” — largely consisting of a left-winger’s dream agenda.
Even in the goofy “1600 Penn,” one person’s comedy may be another’s political zinger. The Gilchrists’ fight for education reform pitted them against a racist, sexist senator, Frohm Thoroughgood (guest star Stacy Keach), whose name is an obvious play on the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Southern Republican who was an outspoken segregationist.
By Brahma Chellaney
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