By Ken Tucker
Updated December 17, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Jordin Althaus/NBC

Here’s the thing: You’re not going to laugh very much, I’m guessing, at the 1600 Penn that premieres tonight. The debut lumbers along like the pilot for a complex drama, as though it had to carefully delineate each member of a wacky White House family headed up by Bill Pullman’s President, Jenna Elfman’s First Lady, her stepson played by Josh Gad, and the family’s other kids. But the show gets better; by the third episode, I liked the characters and I was laughing.

It’s difficult enough to get people to sample a new sitcom around this busy holiday time, but to ask viewers to stick around for three weeks — well that way lies Bent, another NBC sitcom I liked (quite a lot) once it found its rhythm, and which sank without a trace.

1600 Penn is interesting, though. Pullman’s President isn’t a doofus, even though he does ridiculous things such as seek parenting advice from his Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Elfman is initially stiff, brittle, until you realize that’s the way she’s choosing to play her character; she’s Dad’s second marriage, and she’s awkward about parenting the man-child that is Gad’s Skip. This (eventually) makes her more likable.

Gad — who has won raves on Broadway in The Book of Mormon and was very funny in the underrated Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton-Steve Levitan 2007-8 sitcom Back To You — is the big draw here. He knows exactly who Skip is: A big puppy-dog of a young man, eager to please and too clumsy and socially maladroit to succeed. But he’s got a big heart, you know? Gad has taken this collection of cliches and infused them with warmth — heat, even. His physical comedy, the way he barrels down a White House hallway or dives into a swimming pool, is powered by comic energy.

I’m curious to know what you thought of 1600 Penn, and whether you think you might give it another shot.

Twitter: @kentucker