Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris is astoundingly creepy television. The new variety show/game show/live extravaganza debuted Tuesday, September 15, to solid ratings overall (if soft compared with its America's Got Talent lead-in), but its audience steadily tuned out throughout the proceedings.
And with good reason! The whole point of the show seems to be that host Harris could be anywhere. He might be stalking you. He might be setting up hidden cameras in your home to make you sing karaoke. He might be climbing a giant metal frame in the middle of the sky in a race against Reese Witherspoon. It was all incredibly manic and more than a little exhausting.
But wait! There's more. Writes Pilot Viruet at Flavorwire:
See, the pranks aren’t of the "look under your seat and find something silly!" variety — they’re deeper, go on for longer, and are perhaps evidence of some sort of dark, pathological comedy condition. Harris tells weird secrets about specific audience members (how funny!), but then singles out one couple and reveals that he was the bellhop at their hotel, standing creepily as they took selfies. He was the mascot at the sports event they attended, stepping on their overpriced nachos. He was the creepy voyeur photobombing their wedding photos back in August, dancing behind them, hamming it up in the background, sticking his finger in the wedding cake, going to their honeymoon suite to roll around on their bed before they get there. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of old Criminal Minds episodes recently, but by this point in the episode, I was becoming increasingly worried that Neil Patrick Harris might actually be an overzealous sociopath distracting us from his true intentions with stellar dancing skills.
I'd go one further than Viruet, though. I think Best Time Ever is indicative of NBC's empty approach to broadcasting TV it thinks Middle Americans will like. The network seems to be deliberately testing H.L. Mencken's quote, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
Everything on NBC needs to be a spectacular event
If I had to pick a phrase to describe NBC under the tenure of current network president Bob Greenblatt, it would be "The Most." Everything the network does has to be the biggest and most spectacular version of whatever it started out as.
The Blacklist can't just be a show about catching criminals — it also has to feature hammy James Spader as the ultimate criminal, throwing in his lot with the feds to track down a long list of names. The network's upcoming sitcom Truth Be Told can't just be a show about friends discussing the issues of the day — it has to feature them talking about said issues in the most outrageous of ways. And Sunday Night Football can't just be a football game — it has to be the grand pageant that kicks off every American week.
NBC has found success with this particular approach, but less success than it might boast of. While it handily won the 2013-'14 TV season in the 18- to 49-year-old demo, it only won the 2014-'15 season because it had the good fortune to air the Super Bowl, which barely bumped its numbers over CBS. It won't have a Super Bowl cushion in 2015-'16. (The big game is airing on CBS this season.)
At the center of NBC's approach is the idea of programming events. It's not enough to simply have a one-off TV special or movie. No, that special or movie has to be some sort of amazing spectacular, be it a live musical or a Dolly Parton–themed film that the network was already promoting in the summer, months and months before it would air just one time.
There's a certain logic to this. The huge numbers NBC drew for The Sound of Music Live would have been addictive to any network trying to weather the storm of the collapsing TV model. But at the same time, big ratings for a one-off are ultimately big ratings for one night only. And when it comes to crafting a week-to-week schedule, NBC's strategy falls apart in ways where Best Time Ever is instructive.
Everything about Best Time Ever is desperate and airless
If you're going to revive the TV variety show, there are far worse hosts to approach than Harris. The man is ebullient, consistently and thoroughly. He has a multitude of talents. And he seems to really enjoy watching random people do their thing.
But Best Time Ever, weirdly, strips Harris of many of those qualities, in the name of making sure there's never a moment of dead air. At one point in the premiere, the broadcast returned before the host had been properly miked, and instead of skating through the uncomfortable moment, he mugged a bit as if it were part of the plan.
The show is desperate to keep things moving, cutting to Witherspoon singing karaoke here, bringing out Carrot Top wearing a shirt that reads "CARROT TOP" there. It never pauses to catch its breath. It feels like watching five YouTube videos at once.
That airless quality defines much of NBC's output. It really wants to be the network of Middle America, but it has virtually no respect for or faith in that audience. (See, again, Carrot Top — an incredibly distinctive-looking human being — coming out wearing a shirt that said "CARROT TOP," while Harris said, "It's Carrot Top!")
The Best Time Ever premiere only underlined this. The various at-home and in-studio audience members it caught up with were from usually-not-on-TV places like Alabama, Ohio, and Tennessee. The show's tone vacillated between wholesome and frantic, like a church youth group meeting on amphetamines. It kept rolling out corny gimmicks, like a child who was meant to be Harris's Mini-Me. And whenever Harris's career was mentioned, it was usually in the context of Doogie Howser, M.D. or Gone Girl, not, like, his Tony-winning role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
NBC too often condescends to its core audience
That makes sense, to be sure! The vast majority of Best Time Ever viewers will have never even heard of Hedwig. Too much of television is programmed for those who are really tuned in to what's going on in New York and Los Angeles, and too much of television forgets that there's an entire country between those two cities, filled with stories worth telling and people worth meeting. NBC's notion here is a good one, but the network can never escape a certain base level of condescension.
At every turn, NBC programming tries to distract its core audience by jingling keys in front of its face, unaware that said audience is perfectly capable of handling something other than shiny baubles. (Breaking Bad, among many other great TV shows, caught on in the middle of the country before it did the coasts.)
Look, again, at The Sound of Music Live. That program might have had its elements of disaster, but it worked for its audience. And that's because it's all but impossible to make an insincere version of The Sound of Music. The production had great songs, room to breathe, and characters the audience could care about. That, above all else, can carry even the most obvious of weaknesses (like a poorly cast Maria von Trapp).
Though it seems unlikely to retain its crown for a third season in a row, with CBS and ABC hot on its tail, NBC is still the number one network in TV, however nominally. If it got there by leaning into its Middle American, football-watching audience, great. But it would be nice if the network could substitute sizzle for substance and could understand, even if only for a few moments, that it is not doing the good people of the country a great service by bringing its wholesome good-time entertainment down from the mountain to them. There are always other channels.