As ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” continues to be hailed as a revelatory comedy series that puts classic networks back on the TV awards map, attention should also be paid to the other great non-streaming sitcoms of its age. Take, for instance, “American Auto,” which, after two strong seasons, has proven a worthy successor to past NBC workplace comedies like “The Office” and “Superstore.” At a time when increasingly dark dramedies dominate much of the television landscape, it’s important to keep part of the spotlight on feel-good laffers, and “American Auto” stands as proof that there is more than one such model on the lot.
“American Auto” primarily takes place in the Detroit corporate offices of fictional car company Payne Motors, which has recently fallen under the control of ill-equipped CEO Katherine Hastings (a perfectly cast Ana Gasteyer). With each passing episode, her central goal of at least keeping pace with rival auto manufacturers is somehow thwarted, and she is continually reminded that she can’t count on much help from her hilariously discordant staff.
In addition to “Saturday Night Live” alum Gasteyer, the main cast of “American Auto” consists of Jon Barinholtz (“Superstore”), Harriet Dyer (“Love Child”), Humphrey Ker (“Mythic Quest”), X Mayo (“The Daily Show”), Michael Benjamin Washington (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), and Tye White (“Greenleaf”). The series has also welcomed several well-known guest stars this season, including Ryan Reynolds and Seth Meyers as themselves and past Emmy contenders Ben Feldman (“Mad Men”) and Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”).
Justin Spitzer, who created “American Auto” and serves as one of its executive producers, previously held both positions during the six-season run of “Superstore” (2015-2021) and worked before that as a producer and writer for “The Office.” His distinctive comedic voice still shines through on this new series, which boasts a stacked writing team that includes former late night contributors Jeremy Hsu (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”), Jeff Maurer (“Last Week Tonight”), and Tim McAuliffe (“The Tonight Show”) and “Superstore” veterans Jonathan Green, Bridget Kyle, Eric Ledgin, Vicky Luu, and Gabe Miller.
In the words of Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, what makes “American Auto” special among workplace sitcoms is that it has turned “its setting into the primary source of its jokes” and “figured out that corporations make for excellent adversaries.” Throughout season two, the Payne employees are constantly forced to tackle incredibly sensitive issues ranging from climate change to reproductive freedom but are always kept from addressing them as they’d like to by “large-scale economics, impersonal corporate culture, or the social expectations that a corporation can behave like a person.”
Placing this intentionally diverse bunch of somewhat out-of-touch characters in situations that require them to work together to appease certain groups or even think like average people is a crucial part of what makes “American Auto” a potential “crown jewel” for NBC at “a fraught time for network sitcoms.” (Brianna Wellen, Primetimer). What it has succeeded in learning, VanArendonk points out, is that it’s “fun to be able to root for all the characters in a comedy while also laughing at the nightmare of… corporate logic.”
Although the TV academy overlooked “American Auto” in 2022, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will have any trouble getting some Emmys love for its sophomore season. In fact, it would be the 12th show since 2000 to earn its first Best Comedy Series bid in its second year, joining eventual winners “Will & Grace,” “The Office,” and “Fleabag” as well as popular nominees “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Flight of the Conchords,” “Black-ish,” “Dead to Me,” “The Kominsky Method,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and “PEN15.”
Pre-21st century shows that fit into said group include “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Family Affair,” “Barney Miller,” “Three’s Company,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Family Ties,” “Night Court,” “Mad About You,” and “3rd Rock from the Sun.”
“American Auto” has yet to receive a third season order, but, as Wellen says, “the time to renew [it] is now.” In the meantime, it fully deserves a greater boost into the Emmys conversation because, more than most other sitcoms of its time, it represents truly smart, meaningful, and enjoyable comedy at its finest.
PREDICT the 2023 Emmy nominees through July 12
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