TELEVISION

You Should Watch AMERICAN AUTO on NBC Tonight

Back in December 2021, three new TV sitcoms debuted with short seasons. Abbott Elementary on ABC (13 episodes), and Grand Crew and American Auto on NBC (10 episodes each). I don’t watch many new shows on network TV these days, most of the interesting stuff is on cable or streaming services, but I was immediately hooked on all three of them. But out of those, it was Abbott Elementary that got all the (well-deserved) acclaim and media hype, it was quickly renewed for a full second season which debuted in September of last year. But of those three shows, this was my personal favorite.

Like Abbott Elementary, it’s a workplace comedy with a diverse ensemble cast, shot in the single-camera format, with no laugh track. It’s created by Justin Spitzer, who created the sitcom Superstore, which I also loved.

The setting is Payne Motors, a major American car manufacturer based in Detroit. I guess it’s a stand-in for Ford Motor, the company has been in existence for decades, and a recurring gag is mentioning the bigotry of its founder.  The series begins with the arrival of their newest CEO, Katherine, who is played by Ana Gasteyer. The joke about her is that she’s completely unqualified for this position. She was previously the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (and there are frequent references to controversies that occurred under her watch at that company, such as a drug that caused babies to be born with their heads unattached to their bodies), but knows absolutely nothing about cars. She doesn’t even own one, nor knows how to drive.

Rounding out the cast is Sadie, a generally good-natured but somewhat naive executive, played by Harriet Dyer. Jack (Tye White), who was a worker in the assembly line, but then impulsively gets promoted by Katherine to work in the office, although his new job title is never made clear. In the first episode, we learn that Sadie and Jack had hooked up at a recent office party, although both insisted that it didn’t mean anything and were trying to put it behind them, which now is harder for both of them as they’re working side by side. So they’re the typical “Will They Or Won’t They” inevitable couple that every workplace comedy needs.

Jon Barinholtz is excellent as Wesley Payne, a smarmy entitled but nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is heir to the Payne family that founded the company. While he denies it, he’s resentful of the fact that he wasn’t put in charge. Dori is Katherine’s assistant, played by X Mayo (coolest name ever). Cyrus, played by Michael Benjamin Washington, is the chief car designer, and Elliot is the company lawyer, played by Humphrey Ker. The cast all have great chemistry with each other, and the dialog is funny and clever.

In the first episode, Payne Motors is set to debut its new self-driving car. But while testing it they find that there’s a flaw in the car’s A.I., it doesn’t recognize Black people. Meaning if a Black person walks past it, the car won’t stop and will just drive into them. Another episode has a PR nightmare arise when a serial killer uses a Payne car to escape. Two episodes feature a plot of the company trying, at Katherine’s urging, to build a new car that would only cost $10k, meaning they’d have to cut a lot of corners in its production. Payne Motors plans to build a new factory in a struggling small town that would greatly help that economy, but when Katherine finds out the company could save a lot of money by building the factory in a Third World county instead, she orders everyone to try to sabotage the deal. Jack tries to help his former coworkers in the assembly line who are fighting for raises by giving their union reps some inside information to help them, but that backfires on him.

I just love this show. As I said, the cast is diverse, but it’s not shoved down your throat, it just is. It passes the Black version of the Bechdel test by having two Black male characters on it, in addition to the Black female character Dori. Cyrus is openly gay, but that’s not an issue either, nor is the fact that Jack and Sadie are an interracial “couple.” Jokes do sometimes touch on race, gender, and sexuality, but always in a funny way.

Seriously, I love this show, and I hope it continues. Which is why I’m writing this. It’s finally coming back for its second season tonight at 8:30pm, giving it 13 episodes this time, and I hope it hasn’t lost its momentum. It’s been paired with the revival of Night Court, a show which I loved growing up and I found the first two new episodes to be decent, if not spectacular, and I’m hoping this is enough for it to find and build its audience. I’ve lost too many great shows that were canceled before their time, and I don’t want this to be another. So please tune in!!!

You can also catch it on PEACOCK, where you can currently stream the entire first season as well.

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