First family sendup ‘1600 Penn’ a promising candidate for the long term

Jenna Elfman (left), Bill Pullman, and Martha MacIsaac in “1600 Penn.”
Jenna Elfman (left), Bill Pullman, and Martha MacIsaac in “1600 Penn.” Credit: Jordin Althaus/NBC

TV has been getting all up in the political world lately, with the likes of “Veep,” “Political Animals,” and “Homeland.” Monday night, NBC’s “1600 Penn” begins its run as the jester in the court, a silly sitcom about a dysfunctional first family that has none of the withering wit of “Veep.”

The premiere, at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 7, relies heavily on the Chris Farley-like buffoonery of first son Skip Gilchrist (Josh Gad), who can’t stop getting involved in fires and causing trouble for the White House press secretary and security team. Skip’s idiocy — he has spent seven years in college — appears to be the show’s big draw, which is more like a big gnaw.

But then the second episode, and then the third, come along, and “1600 Penn” — which will take its regular Thursday time slot on Jan. 10 — evolves into a surprisingly likable single-camera comedy. Even Skip mellows a bit and becomes an endearing presence, a kook who sees the world in a singular way. Gad, one of the shows co-creators and an actor from “The Book of Mormon” and the Web series “Gigi: Almost American,” tones down his shtick, and the other characters begin to get some welcome attention. By the end of episode 3, I was ready to keep an eye on “1600 Penn” with the hopes that it will continue to improve. It’s not a satire of politics — it doesn’t have a critical edge or a partisan leaning — but it has potential as a warm family comedy.

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Jenna Elfman and Bill Pullman are Emily and Dale Gilchrist, the first lady and the president. She’s his second wife, and she’s desperately trying to win over his four children — Skip, who calls her “Momily,” high schooler Becca (Martha MacIsaac), and two much younger kids, Marigold (Amara Miller) and Xander (Benjamin Stockham). Elfman is appealing here — she’s less sitcom-hyper than usual, as she plays a more maternal figure. It’s hard to tell if she and Pullman have chemistry, since his character remains hazy in the first three episodes. But she works well with the younger actors, and in the scenes where she fights against Emily’s reputation as a trophy wife.

Becca, we learn early on, is pregnant after a one-night stand. It’s a White House nightmare — that seems to be the situational formula in each episode — and it gives MacIsaac an opportunity to shine as the smart kid who did something stupid. One of the show’s creators is Jason Winer, director-producer on “Modern Family,” and I’m hoping he will do for the kids on “1600 Penn” what he has helped to do with the kids on “Modern Family.” It’s great to find young characters on TV who aren’t merely clever little cellphone addicts or lisping cuties. Think of Manny on “Modern Family,” who is in a class by himself. If the members of the “1600 Penn” ensemble can flourish one by one, as a collection of unique people bouncing off one another, the show just might take off.

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