Stupid is as stupid overdoes.
When done well, of course, stupid sells. The not-quite-bright but well-meaning naïf has long been a comedy staple, from Red Skelton's movies to NBC's own Parks and Recreation. The trick is to find an actor who can infuse the sometimes bumbling main character with enough charm, and the performance with enough control, to carry the audience past behavior that, in real life, would quickly become annoying.
It's a tightrope walk Amy Poehler pulls off with weekly aplomb on Parks, and one Josh Gad matched on Broadway in The Book of Mormon and in the first episode of NBC's 1600 Penn (* * out of four, Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) which got a sneak peek in December.
Unfortunately, somewhere in between Episodes 1 and 2, he's tipped over - and he's taken his show with him. So what a returning audience will find tonight, in Penn's "official" premiere, is a sitcom that has moved from agreeably silly to disagreeably dumb, a regression no network should want to see.
Gad, who also serves as one of the show's executive producers, stars here as Skip Gilchrist, the wayward son of the president of the United States (Bill Pullman). Having been thrown out of college, Skip is now living in the White House, where he'll cause no end of trouble until his innate sweetness leads to a happy ending. Or at least that's the idea.
Skip, however, isn't the president's only family problem. He has a second wife (Jenna Elfman) who has trouble adjusting to her roles as First Lady and First Stepmother. And he has a bright teenage daughter (Martha Maclsaac) who has announced to America that she's pregnant - thanks, we discover, to a microphone mistakenly left on as the first episode was ending.
Which is where the show quickly goes awry. 1600 Penn is meant to be a family comedy, not a political satire, but to the extent it wants us to invest in this family's dilemma, it needs to at least momentarily make us think they exist in the real world. Yet everything about the crisis feels both clumsy and false, from the mainstream media's willingness to call the president's teenage daughter a vulgar name to the president's whining about his anger management problems to the joint chiefs. It's a scene that makes you cringe in embarrassment for Pullman, who has earned better.
And everywhere, as the writing gets bigger and broader and more low brow, so does Gad. He's a gifted comic actor: His star turn in Mormon was one of the funniest musicals have seen in years, and he showed equal promise in the pilot. But Skip now seems to be expanding and unraveling at the same time, to the point where what had been a lovable character has become an oppressive presence. The idea of Skip making every scene about himself may be amusing; the reality of the actor doing so isn't. And what's more annoying is his character is undercutting Elfman, who is giving a restrained performance that is one of her most appealing.
Compared to the blazingly bad ideas that were Animal Practice and Guys With Kids, Penn is at least a seasonal step up for NBC. There's a germ of a good show here, and a clear opportunity to do a sitcom that has a chance to appeal to a larger audience than the NBC comedy norm.
Wasting that chance would be stupid, indeed.