It’s difficult to imagine the amount of scrutiny Neil Patrick Harris and the Best Time Ever team must have been under as they developed the show. It’s a variety hour based on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway (hailing from the U.K., currently much warmer to this goofy stiltedness than the United States), premiering on the heels of the network’s big talent show, in a tentpole 10 p.m. slot but under pressure to be family-friendly enough to maximize return on NBC’s investment, and ahead of the overstuffed late-night landscape that borrows liberally from the variety-show tradition. In an era when audiences are cynical, sketch comedy’s best talent is more likely to be found on cable than on network TV (unless you want to head online for SNL Digital Shorts), and anyone who wants to see a lineup of quick-hit random nonsense can just click on a YouTube sidebar for an hour, this show had its work cut out for it.
None of that seems likely to deter stage and TV veteran Neil Patrick Harris, whose perk at this point seems less charming than grim, but that roll-with-the-punches doggedness has carried him across several awards-show hosting gigs and it’s the sort of soft-focus audience goodwill advertising dollars are made of. And, more than any other late-night host except possibly Stephen Colbert, he has the old-school confidence NBC needs to make sure people stay tuned. (Even Charles Boyle knows the value of that kind of showmanship; NPH would never wager it.)
But I wrote all of the above before I started watching Best Time Ever, which manages to disappoint, discomfit, and baffle in equal measure. It’s also, at least in its first episode, less a variety show than the television equivalent of going to Harris’s house and having him excitedly reenact some not-very-funny anecdotes with increasingly manic energy, willing you to laugh—laugh, goddammit! You don’t think it’s funny that he drew a couple up from the crowd to show them all the ways he’s been spying on them over the weekend? What if he shows you he’s spied on them for (if you believe the shtick) the better part of a year? What if he pranked the hosts of The Voice by pretending to be the host of the Austrian spinoff just to capture Gwen Stefani’s expression when he blankly referenced No Doubt—and then auditioning? What if he pranked people sitting at home and made them perform karaoke on a dime or risk humiliation on national television? Would you love him then? What if he made audience members answer questions for prizes, one of which was child host Little NPH’s weight in pizza? Isn’t that whimsical enough? Would you love Neil Patrick Harris then?
All of this happens at a fairly professional clip; you hire NPH partially because he has no problem stalling a bit while the sound tech finishes reattaching his microphone after the break. But then comes the rest of what they have planned, and he is determine to make you enjoy yourself even though the light in his eyes dims with every intro. That dreadful, cringingly self-aware energy seems like the only defining attitude that emerged from a show that swung from murky to bizarre; weird enough to feel like it was assembled from random flash cards, canny enough that one suspects producers were hoping for Twitter exclamations to intrigue online passersby. Is there a large audience otherwise for stunt bartenders and extreme pogo-stickers—besides to prove that Neil Patrick Harris can do both those things? (Would you love him then?)
Things start to slip sideways for better or worse right around the Carrot Top cameo, which is so pointedly tone-deaf and trendless that it manages to bridge the gap between awkward and surreal; it suggests the laissez-faire of a late-late show, which is either a bold move or a lead balloon. And whatever else can be said of the ephemera as it was presented tonight is that Best Time Ever commits wholeheartedly to the idea of whatever its doing, whether interrupting Gloria Gaynor to let folks at home take a turn, or showing Little NPH reading Gone Girl twice, in case it wasn’t funny enough the first time.
There are hints of what might end up being the best this show can offer—namely, ol’ NPH leveraging his celebrity friends to gently embarrass themselves on live TV. Tonight’s guest announcer was Reese Witherspoon, who must have a rider in her contract that says she gets the full red-carpet look no matter what, so startled by the height of their zipline obstacle course that she deviates from the script long enough to gently castigate the host for making her do it without telling her what it was going to entail. It opens the way for an even more unexpected live moment, when Carson Daly uses his 10 seconds of screen time to make fun of Neil Patrick Harris for needing to win something so perilously dumb. It isn’t much to hold on to, and the gag (“Neil Versus,” introduced by Nicole Scherzinger with a hair-flip as grindingly determined as the rest) seems like it’s going to be hard pressed to top itself every week. But there’s a spark of spontaneity in it, and at least a Neil Patrick Harris who is coaxing his celebrity friends into an obstacle course is a Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t stalking his guests. That’s something, right?
This is a strange era for the variety show in America. All its genre markers have been deployed with great success across the TV landscape, from the cheap laughs of America’s Funniest Home Videos to late-night bandleader straight-men and sketch segments. In theory, there’s never been a better time for a well-connected focus-group darling to make the most of it and bring back that particular blend of strange, stilted, and sublime. Maybe Neil Patrick Harris can tweak the show so it’s a little less about the host and a little more about the variety. Until then, stay alert and keep your eyes peeled—he could be right behind you, trying desperately to make entertainment. Will you love him then?
- I didn’t realize there was a groundswell of demand for hidden-camera gags outside of feel-good social experiments and haunted house reactions, but thankfully Neil Patrick Harris has his ear to the ground.
- Nicole Scherzinger isn’t without comic timing, and she certainly has stage presence. Maybe next time they can let her skip the “sexily touching the guests” portion and actually prove either of those things!
- I would happily believe that is how Reese Witherspoon dresses for everything; her Southern Deb persona is getting bulletproof, and you don’t reach that by taking your makeup and stilettos off at night like some slob. That said, she took off the stilettos to climb the enormous suspended obstacle course.
- Little NPH has good posture. (I know I’m reaching; so was the show, I work with what I have.)
- Never befriend Neil Patrick Harris. Look what he makes you do.