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NBC Tries to Keep Sitcom Alive with New Shows from Established Veterans

There was a time when a new sitcom debuting on NBC would garner some major press. Don’t get me wrong. There have been comedy duds for as long as comedy has been on television, and the habit of burying new shows in a non-ideal premiere window isn’t new. The money has been spent; the contracts have been signed; the episodes have been shot—let’s just get this over with in mid-December. However, I was surprised that two shows that premiered on NBC with sneak previews last month and little fanfare had the pedigree that they do—created by the people behind “Superstore” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” two of the more critically acclaimed and beloved comedies of the last decade. One of them works notably better than the other—a comedy that picks up the socially conscious sense of humor from “Superstore” and transplants it to the auto industry in Detroit. “American Auto” is a smart, promising show, presuming anyone still watches comedy on network TV.

Justin Spitzer brings his experience with workplace comedies like “The Office” and “Superstore” to the Motor City for the funny “American Auto” and the lives of people who work at the fictional car company Payne Motors. “Saturday Night Live” vet Ana Gasteyer stars as Katherine Hastings, the new CEO of Payne who comes to the company with no experience in automotive and little interest in cars at all. Her success in pharmaceuticals got her the job, much to the surprise of the people who now make up her support structure like Sadie (Harriet Dyer), Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), Elliot (Humphrey Ker), Dori (X Mayo), and, most of all, Wesley (Jon Barinholtz, a “Superstore” vet), the grandson of the Payne founder.

In the hilarious premiere, already available on Peacock after its December sneak preview, Katherine is introduced to the latest development at Payne, a self-driving car that accelerates and brakes on its own. Small problem: it has trouble identifying non-white people on the street (a play on an actual issue explored in the doc “Coded Bias”). Spitzer and his team on “Superstore” turned that show into one of the smartest recent commentaries on social issues, expanding it from a traditional workplace comedy into a show that wasn’t afraid to deal with class inequity. “American Auto” goes even further in that department as most episodes play with how people in boardrooms are navigating (often poorly) a world of complex social issues. For example, a brilliant episode features Katherine and her team attempting to persuade a small town that they don’t really want the factory that might be built there, leading to an amazing speech in which she tries to fearmonger a small town into not doing what’s best for them. (It just ends with the word “Antifa.”)

However, “American Auto” isn’t all topical commentary—it’s also very funny, especially so early into its existence. Most of its unpacking of red tape, dynamics between the working class, and those who make the decisions for them reminded me more of “Parks and Recreation” than any recent show. And it’s remarkably cohesive for a show coming out of the gate. Comedies often take a long time for the writers to figure out how to write for their ensemble (look at the first season, maybe even two, of “Parks,” for example), but this one already has that rhythm. I just hope enough people find it on NBC to keep it going as long as Spitzer’s previous comedy.

Eight episodes screened for review.

Also airing on Tuesday nights and staring January 4th, “Grand Crew” has a noble goal in that it attempts to tell a story of Black friends in a way that feels new by being somewhat routine. Comedy legend Garrett Morris even introduces episodes of the show in a way that amplifies the purported ordinariness of the everyday lives of the characters with lines akin to “See, Black friends talk about love and drink wine too!” Like so many similar sitcoms, this one from Phil Augusta Jackson and Dan Goor (a writer/producer/director on and creator of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” respectively) has a gender-balanced group of six friends, including hopeless romantic Noah (Echo Kellum) and recent divorcee Fay (Grasie Mercedes).

It’s not a stretch to say that “Grand Crew” is a relatively generic “Friends”-ish sitcom with Black characters instead of white ones, and I’m all for the importance of representation in all forms of entertainment. I just wish the writing matched the concept. To say everything here feels forced would be an understatement. It’s filled with so many clichés that it never has any room to breathe. The cast is likable enough that the writing may get better to match their charisma, but the early episodes feel desperately off in their comic timing, grasping for punchlines instead of character.

Four episodes screened for review.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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