The new NBC sitcom, American Auto, is only tangentially related to the auto industry, which basically serves as a convenient new backdrop for the TV producer who already gave us place-based comedy hits including Superstore.
But the new show — which resumes in January after the airing of a pilot and the first episode on Monday evening — will strike some chords of familiarity with the millions of those who actually are employed in the car business and its vast ecosystem.
Like a “self-driving” car that gets tripped up in a road test by hitting a Black pedestrian because all the cardboard cutouts used to program the vehicle are white. Like the model-unveiling scene featuring break dancers that comes off as a wan imitation of the megabucks “reveals” that used to occur at auto shows. And like the ethical pretzel created for the executives of “Payne Motors” by the fact that a serial killer is on the loose driving one of their vehicles.
There’s also the scene where CEO Katherine Hastings (played by Ana Gasteyer) tries to rally her team to literally put together a new model for the reveal in six hours, after the self-driving prototype runs into the pedestrian. On the whiteboard can be seen a list of fantastical features drummed up during a brainstorming session that may not be as far-fetched as they seem, including “toilet bowls under the seats” and “rubber side mirrors.”
As a fan of Superstore (and before that of Scrubs and The Office, for whom American Auto producer Jason Spitzer also was a creative force), I appreciate how this new show transports the same sort of ensemble workplace humor into the setting of a Detroit-based car company. Just as the vastness and complexity of operating a big-box retailer provided a mother lode of material for Spitzer’s comic sensibilities in Superstore, American Auto promises to use the ubiquity and reach of the car and its industry to mine the countless comic possibilities.
For example, in one of the lines that plays out best about an industry now absorbed in developing driverless “mobility,” Hastings quickly grasps what the technology behind a self-driving automobile is all about, saying, “Yes, it’s just like a big Roomba.”
But unlike the cast and some of the plots in Superstore, which didn’t seem too far outside the realm of reality, don’t expect insights in American Auto into how an actual Detroit-based car company might be run.
For one thing, the chief’s leadership team is far too young and in too much disarray. It is perfectly balanced from a DEI point of view (even including a British general counsel played by Humphrey Ker), which is something automakers are still aspiring to achieve. And despite the initial temptation to equate Hastings with General Motors CEO Mary Barra, don’t go there, because the newly hired chief of American Auto is a transfer from the pharmaceutical industry who is in over her head.
Unlike Gung Ho, the 1986 movie directed by Ron Howard, American Auto seems destined to stay in the executive suite where its cast interacts and not go into plants where cars are actually built. Despite its cinematic shortcomings, Gung Ho and a short-lived TV series by the same name dealt meaningfully with dynamics in the industry that were actually unfolding at the time, around the threat to American manufacturing, the erosion of our blue-collar work ethic and the transformational effects of the success of the Japanese invasion of the U.S. car market.
Instead, expect American Auto, for however long it lasts, to score precise hits by humorously referencing everyday business and cultural issues that range from “white privilege” and “systemic racism” to carbon neutrality and digital privacy.
Some of the off-color content isn’t necessary to make the show funny. But I’m glad American Auto includes Jon Barinholtz, who plays the bumbling Payne family heir. Barinholtz was great in Superstore as warehouse worker Marcus, and in this show he elevates his game with a broader role.
It’s a performance so far that reminds me of Ed Helms’ role of Andy Bernard in The Office. Not only are Barinholtz and Helms virtual doppelgangers in those shows — they’re both hilarious.