Clichés That Work
1600 Penn is a family comedy about the Gilchrists. The show sticks closely to the stock characters required of the genre. Dale (Bill Pullman) is the gruff but loveable dad. Emily (Jenna Elfman) gets flustered but ultimately holds it all together in her role as the put-upon stepmom. Four kids—all Dale’s—round out the family: 20something Skip (Josh Gad), the buffoon; 20something Becca (Martha MacIssaac), the responsible one; Marigold (Amara Miller), the sarcastic tween; and Marshall (Benjamin Stockham), the precocious moppet.
As the title suggests, the twist here is that Dale is President of the United States and the Gilchrists live in the White House.
Making the president a TV character is nothing new. What differentiates 1600 Penn from its predecessors is a determined desire to avoid any connection to the real politics of the time. This is a stark contrast to The West Wing, which presented a Commander in Chief who at times seemed to be directly debating the Bush Administration on policy as it happened.
At around the same time, 24 had a revolving door in the Oval Office, with five presidents in eight seasons. But 24 was consistent in its view that a strong president does whatever is necessary to protect the country from its enemies, and so engaged in post-9/11 cultural and political conversations. The last sitcom to tackle the presidency also aired during the Bush years. The brainchild of the South Park creators, That’s My Bush, was satirical and short-lived, but could never be accused of ignoring the political environment that spawned it.
1600 Penn, at least in the first few episodes, seems to have no interest in politics at all. There is no mention of President Gilchrist’s party affiliation, and unlike other fictional presidents, he shows no signs of where he might fit. This is not surprising, given the nation’s currently sour mood toward politicians in general. Between the gridlock in DC and the nastiness of the recent campaign, it is probably shrewd for a broad comedy to steer clear of such raw emotions, even if its characters are the First Family. This aversion to politics is both different from and similar to that displayed in the sharper-tongued Veep, which also avoids taking any meaningful stand on issues, but instead revels in every indignity of being a marginalized politician.
Most of the business of the presidency in 1600 Penn focuses on foreign policy, presented in an inconsequential and silly manner. A briefing on terrorist activity in the Situation Room turns into an amusing impromptu parental support group among Gilchrist and his military advisors. A trade treaty hinges on whether or not Gilchrist is willing to lose to a foreign leader in a game of tennis. Various leaders of innocuous allies visit the White House to serve as straight men for the Gilchrists’ jokes.
1600 Penn’s tone may be apolitical, but it is also very funny. Skip is the catalyst for much of the slapstick as he bumbles his way through the White House. A college dropout (after seven years of trying), Skip radiates a winning combination of cluelessness and eagerness to please. It’s not an original combination, but like his relatives, the cliché in his character gives way to charm. Emily looks at first like a sitcom staple, the ditzy second wife scorned by her stepkids. Instead, she is engaged in a constant conversation with herself about her status with the children. It is sometimes hard to keep up with all the wonderful whispered asides she throws into her discussions with the family members. Turn up the volume. Each one is funnier than the last.
Among Emily’s concerns is Becca, the ostensibly responsible daughter who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. This seems an odd choice for a sitcom disinterested in hot button issues—but then again, it doesn’t lead to any discussion of abortion or contraception or single parenthood. Instead, it’s an opportunity for President Gilchrist to tell the American people that he supports his daughter. The subplot also allows 1600 Penn to introduce Becca’s dimwitted baby-daddy. Another cliché, but here, it works.