We hold these truths to be self-evident: not all comedies are created equal. And four score and seven years ago (give or take a couple scores and years), Josh Gad and Jason Winer had an idea for a show about an ordinary, modern family in extraordinary circumstances. And what's more extraordinary than growing up at the most famous address in America, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, home of the White House? Not much, if you're keeping things terrestrial.
And so is the basic idea of what 1600 Penn is all about: a regular family whose father is also in the running to have his head on a coin — thanks to being the President of the United States. The family Gilchrest is an interesting clan: neither Republican or Democrat in name or actions, the focus is less West Wing and more akin to Growing Pains or a Disneyified Married... with Children. Don't expect too much of the Sorkin-defining walk-and-talk on 1600 Penn, but don't count out the heart the series carries with it, either. With a few tweaks, they might have something.
Comedy and politics seem like a natural marriage, but it's surprising how little the White House has been used in television sitcoms. Outside of the deliriously funny HBO series Veep, the higher offices are often exempt from skewering, and saved for those kooky dramatists.
The show feels out of place in the modern television landscape — a curious notion, considering Winer's previous television family was the Pritchett-Dunphy's of juggernaut Modern Family. Where Veep nails it with its combination of British-style humor and American egoism, 1600 Penn relies far more on goofy shenanigans and schtick than substance. The scandalous and taboo topics stretch as far as the decidedly un-so ones of unwed motherhood and the fleeting mention of a possible (but clearly-never-was-happening) abortion. A potential love interest for unwed single-mom-to-be, daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac) seems to be set up with Communications Director, Marshall (Andre Holland) that feels like an attempt to elicit memories of the Charlie Young/Zoey Bartlet relationship from the latter seasons of West Wing, and also keep things semi-diverse. The Descendants' Amara Miller, the second-youngest Gilchrest child, admits feelings for a girl (the same girl her younger brother, played by the adorably precocious Benjamin Stockham, also has feelings for) in an offhanded moment over pizza. A lesbian in the White House? Surely enraging for the more conservative Americans in the bunch, no doubt, but seems to be the sort of plot point that should appear after the character is a bit more developed, rather than made her only defining characteristic from the outset. Throwing a label on a character before she's even a fully-developed character feels more like an attempt at being edgy than it does beneficial.
The brightest spot of the bunch is the delightful Jenna Elfman's step-mother and FLOTUS extraordinaire, Emily Nash Gilchrest. Emily's image in the press is that of a Trophy Wife, but all beauty and no brains she is not. As President Dale's better half, Emily was the campaign manager for Bill Pullman's character's gubernatorial bid in his homestate of Nevada years prior. But she's a neurotic people-pleaser sort — out to prove the press corp wrong, while attempting to win over the love of the general public and her four step-children. Her intentions are good and she has the charisma to carry the show in moments that would otherwise fall flat.
Take a clip seen frequently in the advertisements for the show. In it, Emily is hosting a White House event for young girls and math. After one of the kids asks Emily why her father calls the FLOTUS a trophy wife, you see the wheels turn as she's forced to keep it cool while her kneejerk reaction boils up underneath. "Trophies aren’t just pretty, they denote accomplishment. Like putting yourself through law school, running a dozen successful political campaigns by the age of 40, and still managing to get to the gym three days a week. And I mean real classes, not just standing there on the elliptical. So if your dad has any further thoughts on trophies, wives, or otherwise, I think you should show him your soccer trophy and tell him to shove it up his—" It seems safe to assume that the depths and complexities of Emily Gilchrest will become a highlight of the show.
Whether the show's attempts to spin heart and values around the decidedly disheartened District is a bad thing or not certainly depends on what you're looking for going into 1600 Penn. It's a breezy sense of humor throughout the first four episodes; one that feels comfortable for those looking for entertainment that seems inoffensive enough to leave on the TV at grandma's house. However, the more cringeworthy, stereotypical jokes (the portrayal of the Latin American political contingency feels like a bunch of prattling children prone to histrionics rather than leaders of government) take so much away from the more humorous ones ("I have robots that roam the skies! Sky robots.") that live beside them.
The show has a lot to work on if it wants to capture the essence of family living in 2013. It's an odd blend of political obligations and dated tomfoolery. There's potential in places: the humor shines in its most relatable moments (Skip's relationship with Becca's baby-daddy D.B. is charming in buddy-comedy way). If they tone down the more buffoon-y moments with Skip (Think of it this way: there's a reason Kramer wasn't the central figure of Seinfeld, you guys.) and focus on the humor of modern living, the show could end up surprising us. But until then, NBC may hover over this one with a veto power of its own — and for the charming and lovely cast and creators of this show (and like our nation in general), we hope the underdog surprises us for the better.
[Photo Credit: NBC]
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Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
Amara Miller, who plays the star's youngest daughter in new film The Descendants, can understand why Clooney, 50, doesn't want to have kids.
She tells Us Weekly magazine, "Let me just say, he wouldn't be good as a father. He wouldn't be the best as a father.
"George likes being an adult. George has fun being an adult, and I don't think he would like having kids. I know that he's not planning on having kids anytime soon."
But Miller insists it was great working with Clooney: "He's really amazing… so fun and playing and fooling around and joking... He was just a really phenomenal person to work with."
Shailene Woodley first hit my radar in the later seasons of The O.C., as the troubled sister of Mischa Barton's equally troubled Marissa Cooper. Little did I realize that for the past few years, she's been carving herself out a nice little career, starring in ABC Family's hit show The Secret Life of an American Teenager and landing a co-starring role in the George Clooney-starrer The Descendants. Not too shabby for the beginning of what looks to be a fruitful career.
Woodley shines in the movie, playing an angsty teen that manges to be ruthless and empathetic all at once. Even in her roughest moments, she's never grating (as so many "troubled teens" can be in movies) and she stands up to Clooney with all the composure of an actress twice her age. It's a great performance.
I had a chance to talk to Woodley about The Descendants, working in Hawaii and what to expect from the next season of Secret Life…
What was the transition between the show and stepping up and doing this movie like?
Shailene Woodley:There really wasn’t any transition to be talked about. Just kind of a different job and different atmosphere. The movie was life-altering.
In what way?
SW: I got to work in Hawaii for four months. The most magical island on this planet. I got to meet my top favorite human being in the world, Alexander Payne. I got to work with the most spectacular man I’ve ever met, George Clooney.
A lot of things going for it.
SW: So many things. So many things.
From talking to Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard, it sounded like Alexander casts actors who he remind him of the part. Your character Alexandra does a lot of wild partying on the beach and drinking. Connection?
SW: Yeah, no. Not at all. I never went down the whole drug and alcohol path.
SW: It’s funny. I’m a very optimistic human being in real life, and I’m very in touch with my demonstrative, cynical side. I never practice it, obviously. I never even think it. But I’m able to access it really quickly. Alexander, I think he saw the vulnerable…I don’t know what he saw.
Conversing with him about the character, what were you able to discover about the character?
SW: We never really actually discussed much about the character. I’m sure we did, actually. I don’t remember much about the discussion. I do remember his insights on the script. I never went to acting school or theater school. I took acting classes, but when it comes to semantics of breaking down the screenplay, I’m awful. I read it and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is just a great script. Moving on…’ And then he’ll be like, ‘Oh, so the reason why we say this is because it ties into this.’ And it’s a very poignant part of the storyline. He would blow my mind. ‘Oh, that’s what that means! Great! Thank you!’ So he kind of opened my eyes to a lot of different parts of filmmaking that I wasn’t exposed to.
You play George Clooney’s daughter in the movie and share almost every scene together—but the encounters aren’t always friendly. What was it like being on the attack against George Clooney?
SW: Sparring with him? It was amazing! It was phenomenal!
When you get to spar with anyone, I think it’s fun. I love to argue when you’re told to. And when feelings aren’t involved. And then to argue with a professional arguer like George Clooney—I mean professional as in professional actor—it was fun! It was the best time I’ve ever had on a movie set. George is a superhuman. He really is. He’s one of the most spectacular, down-to-earth, phenomenal, brilliant men I’ve ever met in my entire life. Humble. And I didn’t learn so much from him as an actor, he never really gave me advice, or preached things upon me. It was more of me observing him and his ways, as a human being, and taking more than I could have ever expected to take away from that.
In what kind of way? Is there something specific he did or said that fascinated you?
SW: In his generous way. In his professional way. In his grat…atouille? Wrong choice of words. In the way he approaches everything with gratitude.
He’s really grateful—he’s just as grateful to be on that movie set as I would be or as a transportation guy would be. And I think a lot of people lose sight of gratitude in life. And I think that’s why a lot of people are unhappy. ‘Cause they’re always searching for something more instead of realizing what they have. And he mastered the art of gratitude.
How do three strangers learn to interact like a family? I imagine you’re hanging out a lot on a movie set, but did you guys go off and try and do things? Hang out?
SW: Yeah. I think that’s a big thing with Alexander. I think he’s really big on authenticity. And he wanted us to know each other before he filmed, obviously to open up communication. So it wasn’t like we were thrown on a movie set, and, ‘Oh, hi, I’m your daughter. You’re my dad.’
George and I got there about a month ahead of time. Nick [Krause] came in two weeks ahead of time, and then Amara [Miller] came in one week ahead of time. And we all got to know each other really well, but in a very casual setting. It was never forced. ‘You go have lunch together so you can get to know one another! Bond!’ [laughs]. It was casual tours around the island, and getting to know the culture of being Hawaiian, and the indigenous parts of it. And that’s kind of how we bonded, just over time.
SW: Awesome. But as the movie teaches us, living on Hawaii is not a big vacation.
SW: People die in Hawaii. Shocking, right? It happens.
Do you feel like you’ve learned about Hawaii. Uncovered differences in how Hawaiians live then how you may have perceived life on the islands?
SW: I had never been to Hawaii, and I had never known anything about it. My body may have been born in LA. I might live in LA, still, but my heart is from Hawaii. My heart was born there. It’s one of the most phenomenal places on this planet. There’s an energy there that’s not tangible. It kind of grasps you. And it centers you as a human being, and it grounds you. And it moves you from the materialistic bubble that we so often get lost in.
And there are still indigenous thriving…I don’t want to say tribes, because they’re not tribes. But indigenous peoples living on the island. They were so recently colonized by America in a very illegal way, which is I guess how America took over everything. Or how the French and British colonies took over America to even begin with—the Indians. But yeah, there’s so much culture, and it’s all very indigenous still, when you get away from Waikiki. You start to feel the real vibe of Hawaii.
What are you moving onto next? I’m sure another season of your show on the horizon?
SW: Yeah. I mean, right now, who knows if another season will go? We never find out ‘til a week beforehand.
You mean it’s like, ‘Oh, we decided to make another season of the show! Just come by, if you don’t mind…’
SW: Yeah exactly! Be back in LA next week! Okay! I just cut my hair off! Yeah, but we finished the fourth season Thanksgiving weekend.
Awesome. That’s something you’ve been doing for four seasons. That’s a long time. Do you feel a real investment in it? Is it something that you still see growing? Are there places for it to go from your perspective?
SW: Yeah. I’m really grateful for it, and the writers are incredible…we are all getting a lot older. I’m the youngest one and I’m almost twenty. Everyone else is in their mid to late twenties, if not early thirties. So, there definitely has to be growing up.
Nature takes its call on the show’s direction.
SW: Totally. Those wrinkles are new.