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Witty White House

Great cast, clever writing make 1600 Penn an unexpected sitcom treat

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Well, this certainly isn't the Bartlets' White House.

Nor is it the Obamas', the Bushes', the Clintons', the Kennedys', the Roosevelts' (either branch of the family), the Lincolns' or the Washingtons'.

Fictional, factual or anyplace in between, it's pretty safe to say the West Wing has never been inhabited by a first family quite like the Gilchrists of NBC's 1600 Penn. And given the current tragicomic state of American politics, it's about time D.C.'s most blogged-about address got a family that was just plain funny.

1600 Penn, a new sitcom that is being given the oft-employed "sneak preview" treatment by NBC this week, is a show whose disarming charm and easy-to-digest humour are sufficiently appealing that it leaves one wondering why it was shelved until mid-season.

It won't officially arrive in prime time until Jan. 10, but the betting here is that many who sample 1600 Penn will consider it an unexpected and instantly addictive treat for the festive season.

The series, created by writer/actor Josh Gad (an occasional Daily Show correspondent and star of the Matt Stone/Trey Parker Broadway smash The Book of Mormon) and former White House speech writer Jon Lovett, takes viewers inside a fictional White House in which the presidential family's misadventures are less a function of dysfunction than they are a simple case of an ordinary family's ordinary mistakes being magnified by the fact they take place in an extraordinary setting.

President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, last seen doing the commander-in-chief thing as alien-charging President Thomas J. Whitmore in the 1996 feature Independence Day) is a hard-working guy who occasionally has problems keeping his temper in check. And more often than not, it's the stress of family life rather than the pressures of leader-of-the-free-world-ness that drive him to, or over, the brink.

In this week's pilot episode, Penn's POTUS is forced to deal with the homecoming of his primary irritant, first son Skip (Gad), a chronic academic underachiever who has been expelled from college after leading a frat-house prank that went horribly, flammably wrong.

While trying to get a grip on Skip's misbehaviour, Gilchrist is watching a not-so-delicate dance evolve as his new-ish wife Emily (Jenna Elfman) tries to build a stepmom relationship with overachieving teen Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and younger, mismatched twins Xander and Marigold (Benjamin Stockham, Amara Miller).

Oh, and there's also the business of international politics to be considered, with the White House playing host to a gathering of Central and South American leaders of various political inclination and might. Particularly challenging is the president's effort to convince the strong-willed and hyper-competitive Brazilian leader to join a proposed trade alliance; his approval is crucial to the deal's success, and his taunt-filled rhetoric eventually prompts Gilchrist to propose that they settle matters on the tennis court rather than at the negotiating table.

Of course, it's a bad decision, and inevitably, son Skip plays a hand in making things immeasurably worse. But in the end, a whole bunch of misguided good intention somehow leads to an almost acceptable result.

It's fun to watch -- silly, well-intended, good-hearted fun with enough of an edge to make it occasionally but appealingly uncomfortable.

That isn't to say that 1600 Penn is without faults -- in fact, there are several moments in the pilot when this feels very much like an insecure series in search of its comic identity.

But in two subsequent episodes provided by NBC for preview, 1600 Penn seems headed in the right direction, tackling meatier storylines while at the same time careening into even sillier territory. It will be very interesting to see how its pre-Christmas unwrapping is received by the couchbound crowd, and whether its regular-schedule return -- just in time for the real U.S. president's second-term inauguration -- will receive enough votes from viewers to justify full-time residency in this wittier version of the West Wing.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

TV REVIEW

1600 Penn

Starring Bill Pullman, Jenna Elfman and Josh Gad

Monday, Dec. 17 at 8:30 p.m.

NBC and Citytv

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 C7

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