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From left, Jenna Elfman, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac in 1600 Penn. Jordin Althaus / NBC via Bloomberg
From left, Jenna Elfman, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac in 1600 Penn. Jordin Althaus / NBC via Bloomberg

Diplomatic insanity in 1600 Penn

Modern Family meets The West Wing in the new ensemble comedy 1600 Penn.

As a classically trained ballerina, Jenna Elfman has experienced the ecstasy of grace and beauty in motion. As an actress, however, despite flying high for five years as a flower child on Dharma & Greg (1997-2002) and winning a Golden Globe early in her career, her more recent TV outings have stumbled on crooked comic legs.

Courting Alex (2006) and Accidentally on Purpose (2009) were both snuffed by CBS after their maiden seasons. But there’s nothing like a move to the White House to perk up a gifted comedienne’s career. Elfman is now cast as the president’s wife and stepmother to his four children in NBC’s new sitcom, 1600 Penn (shorthand for the US presidential residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington).

Her character Emily Gilchrist “put herself through law school”, says Elfman, 41, “and she’s a political consultant who helped get her husband into the presidency. So she’s well versed in this political position and the territory of being a First Lady. She’s very comfortable and savvy and understands it”.

The comic monkey-wrenching occurs when step-motherhood is thrust upon her. “I think being a stepmother to the four children is complete foreign territory and her Achilles heel. So when the two mix, she gets a little nutty,” Elfman says.

And who wouldn’t get nutty with an eldest stepson such as Skip, code-named “Meatball” by the Secret Service. In tonight’s premiere, when his impromptu fireworks display burns down a frat house, he’s whisked away from college and back to the White House – -permanently.

Portrayed with a good heart (albeit as somewhat dim and naive in an acting style reminiscent of early Jack Black) the clumsy Skip is played by Josh Gad, the -curly-haired young star who rocked Broadway in the Tony-winning musical comedy Book of Mormon. Watch for him as Steve Wozniak in the highly anticipated Steve Jobs’ biopic Jobs, opposite Ashton Kutcher, and co-starring in The Internship opposite Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson, due out this summer. It’s hardly a shock, then, to discover that Gad, 32, is also one of the creators and executive producers for 1600 Penn.

In sketching the themes that inspire his show, where “Modern Family meets The West Wing”, Gad wonders aloud: “What is it like to be under the scrutiny of a 24-hour news cycle? What is it like to be living in this bubble that is one of the most famous addresses in the world? And having one of the most important positions in the world? To be a president and also a father? To be a son but also a First Son? To be a mother but also a First Lady?”

Some snarky observers might argue there already is a dysfunctional family in the White House but, like politics, you will love or loathe this show depending on your political and comical leanings. It has sharply polarised critics and fans alike in the US. As of now, it floats on the bubble, with no word yet on renewal from NBC.

Two definite treats, however, are in store for comedy fans who give the show a chance.

The first is Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist, who brings a sharp comic edge to the sitcom as a former Marine who finds being head of state easier than being head of his family. When we last saw Pullman, he was the president on the silver screen, thrashing it out with intergalactic invaders in Independence Day, where aliens nuked the White House.

The second treat is Bruce Campbell, revered by the cultish fans of Army of Darkness for his Evil Dead wit and stooge acrobatics. He’s in top form as the president’s brother Doug, a gruff thorn-in-the-backside mug who knows how to humble or rile up the most powerful man in the free world with just one quip.


1600 Penn premieres at 7.30pm on OSN Comedy HD



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