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American Auto Has Promise but Already Needs a Tune-Up

Not even 10 minutes into NBC’s preview of its upcoming workplace sitcom, American Auto, I had hopped into TTAC’s Slack channel to offer a negative appraisal.

That’s unusual for me – I tend to give a new show more than 10 minutes before judging – but I was struggling to find redeeming qualities. It’s one thing for a show about a fictional car company to get things about the auto industry wrong – much more on that in a bit – but this is a comedy, and I wasn’t laughing.

I dutifully forced myself to keep watching the rest of the two-episode, one-hour preview. The show got better – but it still needs work.

The show debuts for real on January 4th and the first two episodes are already streaming on NBC’s Peacock streaming service. If you missed the preview – there was NFL football with playoff implications occurring last night, after all – well, I am here to recap/review it for you before you stream it.

Mild spoilers to follow.

American Auto follows the fictional Detroit-based Payne Motors, which is apparently struggling despite over a century in business, and has just hired its first female CEO – a woman who comes from the pharmaceutical industry and knows so little about cars she doesn’t even know how to pronounce “chassis.” Her name is Katherine Hastings and she’s played by Ana Gasteyer, who is best known for her time on Saturday Night Live.

There’s an obvious nod to Ford here since Payne Motors carries a family name. The font for the company’s logo even looks like Ford’s. And there are numerous references to how the company founder was a bigoted asshole – a la Henry Ford.

It might also be tempting to compare Hastings to GM boss Mary Barra, but that doesn’t really work – Barra was an industry lifer even before being plucked to sit in the big chair. A better comparison might be Alan Mulally, an industry outsider who came from Boeing – but Mulally wasn’t clueless about cars when he took the Ford gig, and he did some good work in Dearborn.

Surrounding Gasteyer’s Hastings are PR boss Sadie (Harriet Dyer), design chief Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), lead legal counsel Elliot (Humphrey Ker), assistant to the CEO Dori (X Mayo), and a scion of the Payne family named Wesley (Jon Barinholtz). Assembly-line worker Jack (Tye White) gets promoted to an unspecified job in the C-suite as the first episode ends (a second-episode subplot focuses on Jack trying to figure what his new responsibilities are).

Jack’s promotion is one of many things the show gets wrong about the industry. In what world does an assembly-line worker – even one who’s supposedly the leader of the plant, like Jack – get invited to brainstorm ideas with the CEO and then get promoted to the C-suite because he gives a speech about cars being cool and the new boss wants blue-collar cred among all the business majors? That all happens because Jack, the assembly-line worker, was miraculously at the test track at the right time to get run over by a self-driving car.

It gets worse. We first see Jack when he wanders into the office to speak to Sadie, who he slept with during a drunken Christmas party hookup. Since when do line workers attend the same Xmas party as the white-collared, salaried folk? Maybe if Jack was a plant manager, wearing a tie to work instead of a mechanic’s shirt. Maybe. Then again, it’s also odd that the assembly plant seems to be on the same property as both the office and the test track.

I expected the show to get some things about the industry wrong – Hollywood always gets at least some things wrong about a given industry when it comes to workplace sitcoms. I also figured the show might have to warp reality for the sake of story, or especially comedy. I was willing to give it a pass, to an extent.

But it’s still annoying to see a landscape that is much more California than Detroit when peering out the office windows – the only concession to Payne Motors being in Detroit appears to be the slapping of Michigan plates on cars. It’s also a stretch to see workers literally pulling parts off random cars in a parking lot to create a last-second replacement prototype.

On the other hand, some things will hit home to industry observers. A print newspaper that focuses on cars looks a lot like Automotive News, and the real Autoblog gets a shoutout. There’s a new-car launch with terrible dancing – think Volt dance – and the show humorously points out why autonomous driving isn’t ready for primetime.

Jack’s speech about cars being cool is a bit corny, but it will resonate with those of us who actually like to, you know, drive the damn things.

I’d also like to mention that the first episode wraps with a real-life version of “the Homer” from The Simpsons.

The second episode even subtly touches on the dance between PR and the press (both automotive and general) in ways that felt familiar to me, even if it’s a bit generalized and comedy comes before nuance (and perhaps, reality).

There’s also a subtle dig at the overlap between watch culture and car culture in the first episode that got me to chuckle a little.

Car stuff aside, that’s the problem with the show – I rarely did more than chortle. It’s not that the show isn’t funny – some jokes landed pretty well – but it’s not as funny as similar shows. At least, not so far, not to me.

NBC

There’s a The Office or Superstore vibe here (creator Justin Spitzer was behind the latter and worked on the former, and Barinholtz was also in Superstore). I’ve never seen Superstore, but I think The Office was better crafted than American Auto. Funnier, at least.

That’s not to say this show is completely devoid of laughs. There’s a funny bit about a self-driving car being “racist” because it can’t see dark colors and the company had no Black dummies. I also laughed a little at a mock-up car that had “anti-kidnapping” devices – it was a good visual gag. A running gag involving Hastings assuming Jack and Sadie are having sex every time she walks into a room where they’re talking gets a few grins. And Hastings has a habit of stepping into rhetorical trouble due to lack of foresight/preparedness in a way that reminds a bit of Michael Scott.

Only a bit, though – Hastings has more self-awareness and is less obnoxious. Still, the second episode revolves around her stumbling through an interview in which she’s unprepared for obvious follow-ups. Of course, her interviewers also act in bad faith and twist her words, in a critique of the worst type of journalists who sometimes play “gotcha” during live hits.

Had she been as media-savvy as a real auto-world CEO, she’d have handled the interview with grace. And Payne Motors would’ve vetted the hell out of the bigoted customer to who they give a platform. Then again, that wouldn’t be funny.

NBC

At least the acting is competent across the board: Gasteyer is solid with her deadpan line delivery, Washington does a nice job with his character’s creepy weirdness, and Barinholtz stands out as the clueless, obnoxious Wesley. Wesley is so ignorant that he doesn’t even realize that Hastings wasn’t hired just for diversity, but because he’s so inept he’d be worse at running a car company than a woman who doesn’t even drive – one who also doesn’t understand why enthusiasts “fetishize” cars. Wesley is basically every skeevy, insufferable co-worker ever shown in a workplace comedy rolled into one, and Barinholtz sells it.

X Mayo is fine as Dori, who’s both street smart and naïve at the same time. But the show doesn’t know what to do with Sadie, Jack, and Elliot. Elliot says things that are funny only because of his British accent, and sometimes provides a voice of reason or the legal perspective, but otherwise, we know nothing about him. We don’t know if he’s a competent lawyer. We don’t know if he’s ethical or sleazy. There’s comic potential here, but through the first two episodes, he seems to exist mostly for exposition.

Then we get Sadie and Jack. Both are supposed to be “straights” to the goofballs around them, but they mostly come off as bland, and both seem to get fewer punchlines than the others. Sadie (an attractive blonde heading PR. Shocking) is stressed because she wants to do the right thing and impress her boss. She’s also supposed to be a car person, but she hides it to impress Hastings, and we only know about her “Ferrari bedsheets” and “fuel-pump shower head” because Jack blurts it out at a very inappropriate time. None of this is Dyer’s fault – it’s the writing.

Same with Tye White’s Jack. White handles the character well, but like Sadie, he’s good-looking and smart and kinda bland, though he’s a bit more unflappable than she is. Their potential love story is undeveloped, save for one longing look and some awkward positioning when she’s helping him wrench on a car. There’s so much possibility there – they could end up together, they could be rivals, whatever – but so far, it’s untapped. Again, either the writing is subpar or things are being held for future episodes.

The thing with workplace comedies is that they’re not usually about the industry. From Cheers to Night Court to Wings to The Office, workplace sitcoms usually only refer to their highlighted industry when it’s a convenient plot device or makes for an easy gag. American Auto, like all those others, is aimed at a mass audience, one that won’t know/care about automotive references. And while the well of automotive-industry comedy is deep, it’s not unlimited.

If the show is to be a hit, it needs to be more consistently funny, and it needs to develop its characters. In car parlance, it’s like a first-year model that rides on a good platform but needs tweaks to powertrain and design. And in time for the next model year.

[Images: NBC]

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