1600 Penn Pilot Recap: Josh Gad and Bill Pullman 'Putting Out Fires' At The White House

Below, George Prax and Shane Brennan share their thoughts on 1600 Penn, the new NBC sitcom starring Bill Pullman, Josh Gad and Jenna Elfman that aired as a preview last night following 'The Voice.' The show premieres in its normal timeslot Thursday, January 10th at 9:30PM following 'The Office'
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By Shane Brennan

1600 Penn is Modern Family meeting The West Wing. NBC’s newest sitcom previewed its premiere episode last night with "Putting Out Fires" and produced a successful comedy pilot. Written by Jon Lovett (Modern Family) and Josh Gad (Book of Mormon) the show stars Bill Pullman in his second stint as POTUS (Independence Day) and trophy wife Jenna Elfman (Dharma and Greg).

Writing a pilot for a sitcom is difficult because developing a plausible storyline and developing characters can take away from comedy. Because of this, the first half of the show is dedicated to Gad’s character “Skip” who is an eccentric, precarious character under the constant surveillance of the secret service in order to keep his distractions and mistakes to a minimum. Gad provides a lot of laughs and has the talent to take over the show. Gad marvelously walks a difficult tight rope of being a joke and providing jokes. Skip is not just funny because he’s zany or overweight, Gad’s solid timing, dexterity (his imitations of Pullman were dead on) and abilities to be serious (if only for a second) gives the character depth.

Pullman conveys every adjective you’d expect from the commander in chief. Strong. Ambitious. Patriotic. Macho yet understanding. Smart but also athletic. Family man but often distracted.

In only 23 minutes the show captured a unique aspect that is often never thought about by Americans. What is like to be the First Family? With political figures in the spotlight the family undergoes a media obstacle course that “common” citizens wouldn’t understand, making everyday problems more difficult and significant. We find out that Marigold and Zander (the two youngest children of the family) both have crushes on the same girl, Jessica. At the end of the episode when the first lady asks Marigold about what boy she likes we realize that Marigold has not yet come out of the closet (or everyone else is just too busy to notice).

To balance Skip’s craziness his older sister Becca (Martha MacIsaac) is the very structured, star of the family. While she is a smart, beautiful, ambitious woman she has as many problems as everyone else. She does not like her step mother and she is pregnant. Every opportunity to speak with her dad is postponed because he is busy and she is nervous to break the news.

The major political conflict of the premiere was between President Gilchrist and Brazilian President De Soto regarding a trade agreement. The two leaders square off in a tennis match where Gilchrist agrees to lose in order to make the deal work. Inspired by Skip’s chants (alternating between “Dale Never Fails” and the good ole fashioned “U-S-A”) Gilchrist slams the tie-breaking point into the Brazilian’s chest, upsetting him and causing the trade to be blocked.

Skip explains the situations to the other Latin and South American leaders who secretly hate De Soto. Skip rallies the leaders the same way he did outside the fraternity house in the beginning and they agree to accept the trade agreements.

The premiere is successful in setting the boundaries for the show and - most importantly for any sitcom - proving to the audience that they can make you laugh. At the end when they show clips of upcoming episodes the show looks promising. Skip’s relationship with the press secretary, media, and popular culture is enough to keep me coming back.

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By George Prax

1600 Penn present itself as a high concept sitcom, but thanks to the Modern Family influence, it might just another family comedy comedy with an interesting setting. That might not necessarily be a bad thing.

In the show, Bill Paxton Pullman plays the President Dale Gilchrist waiting for aliens to attack so he can call upon Will Smith to save the planet. Dharma from Dharma & Greg (Jenna Elfman) plays his wife, Emily, and they have four kids (not together, she's their stepmom and as you can imagine, that's the source for much of the B-plot conflict in the show). But the focus isn't on politics, as the stars have suggested. 1600 Penn focuses on the eldest son of the Gilchrists and the biggest screw up of the lot, Skip, played by the show's co-creator and The Book of Mormon's Josh Gad.

Beyond the presidency, the secret service and the oval, the nuts and bolts of the show are in the relationships between all these characters. Between Emily and the kids, as she's the one who has to spend time with them while her husband does presidential things, which is easier said than done considering she's a stepmom. And more importantly between Skip and Dale, as Skip is forced to move back in to the White House after an incident with firecrackers at his college (where he's spent the last seven years). Dale wants him close so he (really the Secret Service) can keep an eye on him, but sooner than you know it, Skip is screwing up trade agreements and meetings because he just wants to make his dad proud, and that, blended with his clumsiness and prevalence for starting fires, causes a lot of trouble.

After screwing up his meeting with the Brazilian president, Skip falls ass backwards into a solution when it's revealed that the the South American community didn't like him in the first place, so they use the opportunity to go against him. Skip gets praise, Dale gets his way and they end up closer together. The episode also features Emily disarming a situation with her step children, eventually finding out that the oldest daughter Becca (Superbad's Martha MacIssaac, whose character had the same name in that movie, as if telling the difference between Josh Gad and Jonah Hill wasn't hard enough already) is pregnant, an interesting development as she struggled to tell her father earlier. In the end, Skip and the Gilchrists watching Jay Leno make fake jokes about the clumsy son (something that they should do often), as he lets out a sly smile, declaring that he's back.

As a pilot, 1600 Penn is messy, but it's understandable. Shows like this take time to hit their stride, especially with a rather untested concept like placing a sitcom in the White House and centering it around mostly physical comedy. But Josh Gad is funny and once he figures it out as a writer and co-creator, he'll figure it out well, and he has the cast around him to make it work, especially with Pullman, who obviously has experience playing a president. But they'll have to tread a careful line between genuinely funny and broader comedy.

1600 Penn simply a family comedy in a setting you wouldn't normally expect, and there's something endearing and interesting about that, and for me at least, the laughs were there enough to warrant coming back, especially knowing that sitcoms almost always get better after the pilot.

"Putting Out Fires" gets 7 trade agreements out of 10.