Episode 1: Putting Out Fires
By: Carlos Uribe
1600 Penn is a show about a normal family that happens to reside in the White House. I will be covering this show weekly.
The idea of a comedy surrounding the family of the President isn't a bad one but it can be risky. If any characters state political opinions then there's the risk of alienating people who disagree with them. A conservative doesn't want to watch entertainment with a clear liberal bias and a liberal won't want to hear conservative jokes. 1600 Penn decides that it'll avoid that by not stating any political views. It doesn't even bother to provide the President with a political party. While this isn't necessarily a bad decision it is one that does hurt the show. Politics is an immense part of the show that not having the political position of at least the President established makes it difficult to really buy into the show's reality. The series doesn't even bother to state whether he's a Republican or a Democrat. This move might help not alienate any people but it also means that it leaves behind the opportunity to do any real political satire. It's pretty clear that the series isn't interested in doing that. There's nothing wrong with that but it does call into question of why the White House. When people are going to hear about this show, the first thought that's going to enter their mind is how it handles the political realm. It's simply a way of setting people up for disappointment. 1600 Penn is a show that isn't interested in the politics as it concentrates very much on family.
This doesn't mean that it doesn't handle the Presidential duties. A large part of the episode is concentrated on the President trying to get a free trade agreement to pass. This part of the episode presents a unique aspect of the Presidential job but it's completely in service of the family element. It only exists so that Skip can prove himself in the eyes of his father at the end of the episode. Most of the other plots deal with family. The main protagonist, Skip, is a screw-up whose attended college for the last seven years because he's always three credits shy of graduating. The plot of the episode is that the family decides it's time for him to come back home rather than attend school. His step-mother, Emily, is trying her best to integrate herself into the family after replacing their real mother. The perfect daughter, Becca, has just found out she's pregnant while Marigold (the young daughter) and Xander (the youngest son) have a crush on the same girl. These set-ups make it feel like it's just a family comedy set in the world of the White House but the promise is how that world will be able to uniquely impact them. The real problem with the pilot is the large amount of exposition it has to lay out in order for it to work. This came at the cost of comedy and made it feel very much like a television pilot. These are expected problems for a pilot to have and hopefully the series will be able to improve it's writing and become consistently funny.
One thing it's going to have to do is lay out the relationships between the characters better. A large part of the show might be because Skip kept screwing up but this is supposed to be grounded because of his relationship with his dad. Skip wants to make his dad proud. A large problem with this relationship element of the show is that it's barely present. There isn't any time where Skip is allowed to simply bond with his father. The one scene that comes closest to that is really to serve the plot and set up the jokes but it doesn't feel like a real father-son moment. Skip is certainly the central character of the show but his relationships with the entire family feels undefined. While Skip is a character that is best used with restraint, the pilot at least should have used the focus on him to develop the other characters. His interactions with his family never really feel genuine because the show is so busy setting up plot details. Those plot details mean little if we don't care about the family. The show didn't need to have Skip save the trade agreement if the pilot had made it so that Skip was the glue that held the family together. It didn't do this: it was just a collection of Skip doing crazy stuff and having to fix it. If the show had focused less on the actual character of Skip and more establishing real relationships Skip has with each family member then it would have been a much better pilot.
What hurts 1600 Penn almost as much as the lack of any real family moments and relationships is the lack of character depth. Skip is the most developed character and he's a good one to base the show around but it seems like his antics came at the cost of developing everyone else. Emily's plight to connect with the family is good but we don't really know enough about her situation or herself. She wants to become a part of the family? That's great but what does Emily in specific do in order to accomplish that? I can't answer that. The characters talk about how great Becca is but her entire scenes are overwhelmed by her discovery that she's pregnant. There's nothing wrong with making her pregnant but the series is trying to establish a character with a status quo that was changed as soon as we met her. This makes it hard to connect with Becca or her situation. Marigold's entire personality is defined by her discovery of her sexual orientation. It's a big moment when she reveals that she has a crush on the same girl as her brother but it doesn't have any impact because we barely know her. At least she has a lesbian crush as a definition as her little brother isn't given anything. Whose Xander? I have no idea. Bill Pullman portrays a good President but it's hard to buy he has convictions when we don't know his political beliefs. Finally, the press secretary Marshall Malloy delivers deadpan humor but that's basically it.
1600 Penn is a show that suffers from having too much plot while trying to establish a series and characters. It could have pulled it off if it had decided to concentrate less on Skip and more of his relationships with each character. It doesn't and the series feels very much like it's still in-the-works because of this. Future episodes won't just have to work on being funny and continuing the plot but also on some character work and relationship development that this pilot was supposed to have done. This episode is funny-but it proves that the series needs a lot of work in order to work on a weekly basis.