Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
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Coming to Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, the new variety show starring Neil Patrick Harris, I foresaw three possible outcomes for its opening night. 1. We’d get the most fully realized and electric expression of what was promised, a showcase for its spirited, talented host and a frenetic, authentic, anything-might-happen cavalcade of subversive pranks, high-concept games, gonzo theatrics and extemporaneous interplay. 2. We’d get the worst possible expression of all that. 3. We’d get something that landed somewhere in the middle. Option 3 proved to be case, of course, but the shocker was how much closer it was to option 2 than option 1: The premiere was stiff, impersonal, and sloppy.

Harsh? I don’t think so. Harris and company had time to prepare and a clear frame of reference to work from. Best Time Ever borrows the format, tone, and several of the same segments and gags as Britain’s Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, which recently wrapped its 12th season. Perhaps I made a mistake by watching an episode from last spring that featured Harris as the celebrity announcer earlier in the day. A fast-paced, hyper-pop extravaganza radioactive with good cheer and personality, Ant & Dec is a well-managed, extremely polished exercise in one damn daffy thing after another. Those blokes know what they’re doing and exactly how to do it. They can manufacture random comedy that actually feels random. Best Time Ever isn’t in the same league. Not yet. If it’s unfair to expect it to be perfect out of the gate, then here’s an idea: Don’t call your show Best Time Ever. Maybe call it Best Work in Progress Ever or This’ll Be Better Next Week, Trust Us! or At Least It’s Not Blindspot. Because seriously, Blindspot is dumber than a box of hair. But we’ll get to that next week.

Best Time Ever has the potential to be a really great time, for sure. I was most drawn to its mischievous bent. The premiere opened with a delightfully twisted concept, in which Harris revealed to a pair of newlyweds that he’d been clandestinely trolling them for months – harassing them at a college football game disguised as the University of Alabama mascot, even photo-bombing their wedding pictures and molesting their wedding cake. The premiere also introduced a gag that I suspect will get more play in coming weeks: “Little NPH,” a child doppelgänger and a walking, talking meta-joke that the show uses for edgy effect, like having him read age-inappropriate lit like Gone Girl. (Harris appeared in the film adaptation, playing a psycho.) Are there Vegas odds on Little NPH doing a Doogie send-up? I’d take that bet. The climax of the show is a show unto itself, called, fittingly, “‘The End of Show’ Show.” It’s a bonkers song-and-dance set piece super-saturated with absurd touches. This week’s crazy concoction included magic tricks, pogo sticks, a marching band, and choreography inspired by the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. (It also featured cameos by Ant and Dec, though they went unacknowledged.) Here, the anarchy really takes flight. This part alone is a reason to tune in each week.

Other segments were more conventional. None of them landed. “Sing-along Live” asked three viewers to play finish-the-lyric karaoke to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” It was very busy and very dull, as watching other people do karaoke tends to be. “Neil Vs.” pitted the host against his celebrity announcer — a very game Reese Witherspoon — in an American Ninja Warrior-style stunt-race. (The challenge will change each week. It is, according to Harris, the only part of the show that is a complete surprise to him.) Twitter scolded Harris for not letting Witherspoon win, but I got the impression Harris might have been trying to let her win, but didn’t want to appear like he wanted to let her win, and because she was so far behind, he decided to go ahead and finish first. Anyway. More egregious was the director’s weird decision to cut away from Harris just as he was about to smash through the finish line, a “Best Time Ever” banner. In “Undercover,” a recorded segment, Harris adopted an Austrian accent and doofus disguise and punked the judges of The Voice with a bad audition. (Fun Fact! The name “Jurgen Vollmer” is a reference to a Hollywood set photographer who got his start shooting pics of The Beatles in the band’s early days.) Harris’s narration insisted that the prank was a total success, but the brisk, compressed video edit of events didn’t offer much proof. Maybe Harris didn’t get much usable footage from Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams and Blake Shelton. (They did strike me as a rather humorless bunch.) “Get Lucky” gives an audience member a chance to win an assortment of prizes supplied by sponsors by answering news-of-the-week questions. Yay sponsors.

I didn’t always believe in the authenticity of the premiere. Setting the tone were the scripted, cornball exchanges between Harris and Witherspoon, who was stationed far away in a corner of the soundstage, in a spacious (faux) announcer’s booth padded with red velvet cushions. It felt like she was being kept in quarantine from the rest of the audience, and in a club VIP room, no less. Watching the clip packages of Harris infiltrating the lives of newlyweds Teresha and Oronde and escaping their notice, I found myself doubting the integrity of the scams. Perhaps in future episodes, the storytelling could do a better job at walking us through the set-up and showing us how Harris evades detection.

The most disappointing aspect of the premiere was Harris’ hosting. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was feeling excited and nervous – all understandable, if still slightly surprising, given his past success emceeing award shows as well as his impressive live theater chops. Whatever was going on inside him, it dampened his charisma. Especially in the first half of the show, Harris was emotionally cool, his manner was uncertain, and his interactions with the studio audience were stilted and rushed. From a viewer perspective, Harris failed to draw me in. I felt like I was on the outside looking in on someone else’s fun. Check that: I felt like I was on the outside looking in on someone straining to have fun. He perked up after the “Neil Vs.” stunt-race. Adrenaline rush, perhaps. Maybe move that segment toward the beginning of the show.

Is making people feel awkward part of the comedy of Best Time Ever? If so … well, that’s kinda genius. But if so, Best Time Ever needs to get better at making it funny. In another scripted moment between Harris and Witherspoon, Witherspoon played the airhead, stupidly believing that antiques come from Antigua. Yes, yes: It was just some cornball absurdity. No offense was intended. I didn’t laugh, anyway. Harris should finesse his banter with the civilians, too, particularly when he feels tempted to bust some chops, as he did when he mocked the homes of his “Sing-along Live” guests. He should also fine-tune the self-parody. “Wow, look at you, Michelle!” he told this week’s “Get Lucky” contestant. “Thirty-nine seconds ago, you were just sitting in the audience, minding your P’s and Q’s, and now you’re standing up here with Neil Patrick Harris from TV. How’s it feel? Feels good? It’s almost like you won already.” Harris didn’t sell the line, and Michelle had no idea what to say in response, anyway, and the sum total was a joke fail that didn’t flatter Harris at all.

Will Best Time Ever be able to fulfill the promise of its title over the next seven weeks? I don’t know. But in NPH, I do trust. I’m a fan. I want him to succeed. I have no doubt he’ll grow stronger and more confident in the weeks to come. I’ll be watching, if only to see if he does, and for those gloriously goofy final 10 minutes.

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Best Time Ever
  • TV Show