The storied American auto industry is a prime target for a sitcom, given today’s seismic changes in mobility.
Take your topical pick. The shift to electric power from gasoline. The development of self-driving vehicles. The newly minted billionaire technologists driving both. Not to mention those sidewalk-strewn scooters we’re all tripping over of late.
NBC’s “American Auto” (previews Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT, ★★½ out of four), from the creator of “Superstore,” wisely exploits a niche brimming with options for comedy writers looking for an on-ramp to the next workplace-set hit.
Take it from this one-time automotive writer, the gags are there to be had, from lampooning the process of creating a new model’s name to skewering the incestuous relationship between car magazines and auto companies. Comedy gold awaits in a brand new mine.
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But while parts of the first two episodes of “American Auto” cruise effortlessly down this promising comedic highway, the show could stand a bit more time on the assembly line before it’s fully roadworthy.
The best features of the show start with star Ana Gasteyer, the “Saturday Night Live” alum who plays former pharmaceutical company executive Katherine Hastings. She has just taken taken the wheel as CEO of 100-year-old, Detroit-based Payne Motors, a thinly disguised Ford Motor Company, given all the jabs at an intolerant founder that have distinct echoes of Henry Ford.
Gasteyer delivers her lines with a deadpan monotone that delights. In one instance, she tells two employees they can have sex in a company garage, but should wait until after a new-model presentation.
In another, she delivers a punchline to the pilot’s elaborate – and decidedly on the edge – gag related to a self-driving car whose cameras detect only white pedestrians, because they weren’t tested on people of color.
When that car is scrapped and replaced quickly by a new vehicle that’s a hideous mishmash of parts, she asks the company’s chief designer, played by a wonderfully sarcastic Michael Benjamin Washington, what he thinks of the new creation.
“It’s like something Bjork would drive to the Oscars,” he says. “No, it’s what she would drive to the Oscars but if she got into a head-on collision with Blossom on her way to the prom and then the car was reassembled by a blind villager from a tribe that had never seen technology and a spider on LSD who had bad taste.”
A beat, then Gasteyer: “At least it’s not racist.”
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The rest of the cast offers solid comic relief, ranging from a clueless Payne family scion (Jon Barinholtz) to a frazzled communications chief (Harriet Dyer) fresh off a one-night stand with an assembly line worker (Tye White) who suddenly gets promoted to the executive suite.
But it’s almost as if the show needs to decide if it will find laughs in the industry being skewered or in the interplay between the employees. “The Office” relied almost entirely on the latter – there’s nothing hilarious about the paper business – but so far the characters working at Payne Motors don’t seem quirky enough to carry a show.
So that leaves the business in the spotlight. The pilot pivots off that misguided self-driving car and promises more laughs from a final scene in which Gasteyer announces she’s waiting for her Uber, because she doesn’t know how to drive.
But the second episode offered for review, “White Van,” feels more like a tire low on air. You see the shape the writers were going for, but the structure is compromised. The white van refers to the boxy Payne Motors Magellan being driven around Detroit by a scruffy serial killer, complete with a naked kidnapping victim in the back.
The premise of Payne Motors spinning the negative association of having a serial killer driving its product is solid. But while there’s a somewhat funny bit where the designer suggests adding an illuminated “Help! I’m being abducted” sign to the back window, details such as the nauseating fact that the killer skins his victims alive is more cringe-worthy than laugh-fest.
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And one necessary critique for those looking for even a modicum of authenticity: Lovely sunny hills are visible outside the windows of offices and conference rooms at Payne Motors. Last time anyone checked, those don’t exist in Detroit.
All this to say, while “American Auto” feels like it’s having some early engine trouble, it’s worth taking this new ride into the shop for a tune-up.
Perhaps expanding the core cast to include wisdom from people well outside the C-suite, exploiting meet-ups with auto journalists on product test events, and exploring trips to Silicon Valley to mine the disconnect between Detroit legacy companies and tech upstarts could make this a workplace sitcom that isn’t stuck in the workplace.
Kudos to creator Justin Spitzer for picking a prime-target setting for “American Auto.” And for casting Gasteyer as essentially a clueless version of ace General Motors CEO Mary Barra. He’s on the right road, but just needs to check the map.
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