'American Auto' Sitcom Is Confederacy Of Dunces

Is this any way to run a car company? Answer: No.

The fact that the fictional car company of this new NBC sitcom, “American Auto” (premiering Monday), is run by a group of top executives who are clueless is the very foundation of this show’s comedy.

Thus, the way they run it is no way to run a car company -- except into the ground.

The problem for this sitcom, however, is that if everyone managing this presumably huge corporation is incompetent, then it is difficult to see how it stays afloat in the first place.

Certainly, plausibility is not entirely necessary for a TV comedy. But in this case, it might have been beneficial to provide at least a hint of plausibility by establishing one of the characters as more level-headed than the rest.



Instead, in meeting after meeting seen in the first two episodes of this new show (both of which will air back-to-back on premiere night), the top executives of this old-line car manufacturer -- Detroit-based Payne Motors -- rarely seem to speak directly to each other.

Instead, their speech is an exercise in sarcastic non sequiturs, which rarely address anyone else directly. This is what you might call sitcom-speak, not real-speak.

Again, there is room in TV comedies for sarcasm and throwaway remarks. But to make the entire show “read” like this is unfortunate in this case.

As the show opens in the “Auto” pilot, Payne Motors is already facing an uncertain future. It is a traditional carmaker powered by fossil fuel, but if it wants to avoid become a fossil itself, then it must change with the times.

This means drastically shifting its traditional emphasis from gas guzzlers to electric and autonomous vehicles.

To help accomplish this, the board of directors has brought in a new CEO who has been recruited from a giant pharmaceutical company where she was a huge success.

In the show, it becomes apparent almost immediately that the new boss (played by Ana Gasteyer) knows nothing about the car business or automobiles in general.

For one thing, she does not happen to own one. Instead, she takes Uber. Eventually she reveals that she doesn’t really like cars at all. She baldly confesses that she took the job for the money.

The executives who work in support of her include a head of communications who has to manage the CEO’s many public relations gaffes, a corporate counsel who is a ninny, a hapless (and obnoxious) Payne heir who is now a consultant after being passed over for the CEO’s job, and a head of technology who seems as if he is the smartest of all the Payne execs.

But later, he too is exposed as incompetent when the self-driving vehicle he has developed -- and that is due in a day or two to be presented to the world and the automotive and business press -- has a very big problem.

Due to some sort of software glitch, this self-driving -- and self-stopping -- vehicle stops for white people when they happen to cross its path, but its technology does not seem to account for people with darker complexions. I.e., it does not stop for people of color.

Obviously, this is a problem that will require that the car be completely redesigned, reworked and rebuilt in about a day-and-a-half to make it ready for presentation.

The result of this effort is a car like no other -- a veritable Frankenstein cobbled together from mismatched parts from other Payne models.

In the show, the car is a complete failure. But it also happens to be a comic triumph for the show, and especially for whoever designed it in the first place for the comedic impact it would make. Great job.

This sudden burst of creativity may indicate that “American Auto” could have legs (or in this case, wheels) if it can figure out a way to cut down on the contrived sarcasm that dominates it -- including several examples of odious and unnecessary sexual sitcom vulgarity in its first two episodes.

This dialogue in particular would be unacceptable in any business or corporate environment, and would likely result in the firing of whoever said it. Avoiding this kind of repartee would go a long way to establishing the show’s missing plausibility -- in a comedic way, of course.

“American Auto” premieres Monday (December 13) with two back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on NBC.

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