1600 Penn is what happens when a half-formed comedy needs an extra punch to make it past the pitching stage, and said punch adds the suffix "except it takes place in outer space/a slaughterhouse/an orphanage for deformed kids" or in this case, "the White House." Or maybe it's what happens when a former White House speechwriter and a Broadway star taking the next step toward crossover success talk for 13 minutes about creating the next Modern Family. But no matter which scenario is true (it's number two with a splash of number one), it's also what happens when network executives think a screeching buffoon equals laughs.
Josh Gad's (The Book of Mormon) Skip Gilchrist is the black hole around which everything else orbits in this family comedy set in the POTUS's crib, and the character (I'm not putting Gad on the hook here without seeing him in more stuff) is so grating that he should be used in the War on Terror to flush out evildoers. Seriously, if the minds in the secret bunker underneath the Washington Monument figure out a way to weaponize Skip, we can level China and put 'Murica where it belongs: screaming louder than everyone else. The general formula with Skip and 1600 Penn is quite clear: through naiveté and the finesse of a man with his shoelaces tied together, he'll nearly ruin the day before saving it with the same sense of innocence and idiocy that got him in trouble in the first place. Wrap it up with some talk about how family is important (don't forget to throw in a few touching piano strokes so the audience knows it's sentimental), and you have one of those "broad" comedies that NBC has been so eager to dump onto our heads.
Tonight's "The Skiplantic Ocean" was a modest improvement over the pilot, as some of the family bonds—which need to be super-duper strong and convincing for a family comedy to survive—were solidified and we got a sense of some Gilchrist family history. Or maybe I just think that because of a second episode-ending speech touting family values (Modern Family is guilty of this too, but at least that show uses poignancy as icing on something that's already been established during the episode). But I still don't get the sense that these people are family or actually love each other. Heck, stepmom Emily (Jenna Elfman) barely seems like she knows the kids' names. If you look back on Modern Family's pilot (still one of the best comedy pilots ever), you'll see familiarity all over the place, and that episode had THREE families to cover. Perhaps the White House thing is clouding the family-comedy thing, or vice versa, but the show is stuck between those two worlds when it should be melding them. That can be accomplished in time, via spending more time with the Gilchrists, but until then 1600 Penn is only slowly building its identity... and it's off to a terrible start.
Of course, any comedy can overcome these academic misfires as long as it's funny; too bad 1600 Penn is mostly tumbleweeds and cricket chirps. There is the occasional smirk and just a pip of a chuckle from time to time, but the humor is so easy on the brain that it almost needs a laugh track to induce the psychological need to conform and laugh.
What 1600 Penn does have going for it is unabashed silliness, which it embraces with an Adam-Sandlerian (YES THAT IS NOW A WORD) depiction of White House life. President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, slumming it) turning a war room terrorist threat meeting into a gathering of fathers wondering how to be dads is kinda funny! The possibility of insulting nation after nation as visiting foreign dignitaries replace the typical TV trope of nosy neighbors has potential! Andre Holland as press secretary Marshall Malloy is the only cast member who elevates his material. And ummm... the sets! They look awfully pretty and White Housey.
Unfortunately, it's not enough to pick this largely unfunny sitcom off the ground, and it's definitely not enough to cancel out the horror that is Skip Gilchrist. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the type of comedy that NBC is pushing Community out for, but get used to it until NBC decides it needs another makeover.
– The original title for "The Skiplantic Ocean" was "Everything's Nice in the Pool," making the series 0-for-2 on good episode titles.
– Wouldn't it be something to see a family comedy that doesn't feature some young genius kid, a straight-A student daughter, and an idiot child?
– I can't talk about 1600 Penn without mentioning that showrunner Mike Royce (who joined the show after the pilot) created the hilarious and poignant TNT drama Men of a Certain Age, which is must-see television. Royce also worked on Everybody Loves Raymond, so there's hope that 1600 Penn can be molded into something better.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom