Network television is in a state of emergency. Ratings are down and getting lower. Viewers are old and getting older. Buzz is rare and rarely deserved. But you wouldn’t know how dire things are from the new fall line-up, which consists of some semi-decent comedies and some mediocre dramas. It’s an emergency, but the networks continue to respond with wan, pencil-necked shows that couldn’t rescue anyone.
Enter Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, a live show that premiered Tuesday night, and featured Harris singing, flipping on pogo sticks, zip-lining, and playing pranks so harmless they should be diminutized to prankies. Best Time Ever will not save NBC, but it did feel like it was engaged with the bigger questions of how the networks can go about attracting and delighting a mass audience. It did not come up with any great answers, but it was trying something new, something strange, something energetic, something involving Neil Patrick Harris dancing to Pitbull while playing bartender in a choreographed dance routine, pouring drinks for a child dressed up like Neil Patrick Harris.
Best Time Ever operated in basically two modes: harmless gags played on celebrities and harmless gags played on regular Joes. The show began with the latter. Harris, operating in the “see him sweat, but very lightly” mode he has perfected as an award show host, plucked a couple sitting in the audience and brought them onstage. He then proceeded to show them a series of pre-taped clips proving that he had goofily been stalking them for the past few months. They were staying at the Plaza. Harris explained that he knew this, because he had been there. Cue a clip of Harris dressed up as a bellboy, opening their car door. He asked if the two had been to a college football game recently. They had. Harris knew this too, because he had also been there. Cue a clip of him in dressed as a college football mascot, accidentally stepping on their nachos. Harris even appeared to be at their wedding. This whole sequence captured the vibe of the show to come: feckless, pointless, sweet. What exactly was the joke here? That the couple failed to recognize Neil Patrick Harris when he was unrecognizable? That Patrick Harris had lavished attention on unknowing regular people? That when regular people and celebrities encounter one another it’s magical? The couple seemed a little tickled and they got tickets to Antigua, so, no harm no foul.
Patrick Harris then welcomed the very game Nicole Scherzinger to help him with some live karaoke. Out came Gloria Gaynor to sing “I Will Survive.” Up came live-feeds into the homes of three unsuspecting viewers. (Best Time Ever’s use of hidden cameras was a throwback to when cameras were devices of tomfoolery and fun and not, sometimes, the instruments of the surveillance state, secretly watching you while you watch a screen. Best Time Ever didn’t get too creepy with its camerawork, but probably no one should reboot Candid Camera anytime soon; it would be too menacing.) As Harris and the audience sang along to “I Will Survive,” so did the viewers at home. If they got the lyrics right they would win $1,000. This segment worked because everyone involved seemed to be having a great time. The studio audience, the families at home, Harris, Gaynor, Scherzinger, and Reese Witherspoon, who was acting as the celebrity announcer for the inaugural show, were all bopping around seemingly having a blast. Seeing yourself on live television apparently gets people high.
After this, Harris moved on to having fun with celebrities. Witherspoon, without much advance warning, had to face off against Harris in a take-off of American Ninja Warrior (also an NBC show). Hooked into harnesses and wearing helmets, the two raced up a structure suspend in midair, and then zip-lined down. The thrill here, such as it was, was watching Witherspoon have a good time. Less thrilling was watching Carson Daly yuk it up, when he joined Harris to parse a prank Harris had played on the hosts of The Voice (also an NBC show). Harris dressed up as Jurgen, masquerading as a host of The Voice in Austria. He conducted some odd interviews with Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Pharrell, and Gwen Stefani, and then auditioned for them by singing “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going.” As with the prank Harris had played on the married couple at the top of the show, it was hard to tell what was even supposed to be funny here. “Ha! Gwen Stefani didn’t know it was Neil Patrick Harris … even though she couldn’t have known it was Neil Patrick Harris?” Best Time Ever doesn’t want to make anyone—even the objects of its pranks—feel bad, which means it probably shouldn’t be doing pranks.
The success of NBC’s live The Sound of Music has plainly gotten in the network’s head. The Carrie Underwood headlined musical did what so little has done for NBC lately: get it a huge audience to watch in real time and debate the whole thing on Twitter. Never mind that the follow-up musical, Peter Pan, did significantly worse; by making shows live, NBC seems to believe it has found a way to turn anything into an event. This year there is not only Best Time Ever, but also NBC’s Undateable, an unremarkable sitcom that returns for a second season, which will be entirely live. But does the thrill of “live” wear out? Best Time Ever will have a chance to show us.
Best Time Ever’s first episode wrapped up with Harris doing flips on a pogo stick to a Pitbull soundtrack. Why was he doing those things? Did the vigor and goodwill with which he did them obviate that question? Is that all live TV has to offer, not quality, but the quality of its energy?