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January 10, 2013

NBC's '1600 Penn' has a flailing first family

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Bill Pullman stars as President Dale Gilchrist, a taciturn commander-in-chief who is not far off in demeanor from the alien-fighting POTUS that Pullman played years ago in "Independence Day." Jenna Elfman — terrific in her "Dharma & Greg" years and still sorely in need of worthier material — plays the president's newish, younger wife, Emily.

She's a first lady who must prove herself not only to her stepchildren but also to a skeptical nation. At a photo-op with schoolchildren, one child asks the first lady if she's a trophy wife; later she has a showdown with the chief of protocol. "I'm tired of the passive-aggressive history lessons," Emily snaps. " 'Jackie Kennedy did this' and 'Dolley Madison did that!' Guess what — on Dolley's watch, this place burned to the ground."

Skip, the eldest of the four Gilchrist children, is a lovably hapless oaf played by Josh Gad. He is summoned home to the White House after one too many mishaps in his seventh lackluster year of college. The show immediately invests too much of its energy on Gad's narrow performance, in which he delivers nearly all his laugh lines in a Jim Gaffigan-style stage whisper. Skip's doofus demeanor is funny for about two scenes in the pilot, but it begins to shred apart by the third episode. This may be an irreparable situation, since Gad is also an executive producer.

Even as Gad's character hogs screen time, the rest of "1600 Penn" improves when the show gains a little traction. As the Gilchrist family's neurotic overachiever, Becca, Martha MacIsaac is more in line with a character one might find roaming the halls between the East and West wings. "1600 Penn's" major arc so far centers on Becca's unwelcome discovery that she's preggers — the result of a rare night of reckless abandon with a handsome young stranger she meets in a bar.

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