The live variety show has its roots in television’s earliest days. Milton Berle earned his moniker “Mr. Television” on “Texaco Star Theater,” while shows like “Saturday Night Live” continue the tradition into the present.
There’s a multi-layered appeal to these series. The variety show itself harkens back to the days of vaudeville, an influence on the earliest forms of film exhibition – several short skits and attractions, played separately, under one roof. In a way, the variety show is a window reaching back to the beginnings of an art form.
“Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris”
Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
Coupled with this sentimentality is the risk of performing the show live. The idea that anything can happen adds a degree of excited uncertainty and morbid curiosity to the viewing experience. While preparation prevents mishaps, there’s the chance of spontaneity as viewers across the country share in the experience of watching something live.
But “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris” fails to live up to its spiritual predecessors, crafting a bland and stilted final product that is the exact opposite of its title.
In recent years, Harris (“How I Met Your Mother”) has proven himself a hosting juggernaut, with turns at the helm of the Tonys, Emmys and Oscars award shows that earned the multi-talented performer generally strong reviews (with a few exceptions). “Best Time Ever” looks to utilize Harris’s skills as an entertainer, making him the linchpin of almost every section of the show as Harris sings, climbs and pogo-sticks his way through the hour. However, most of these segments feel laboriously long, to the point where Harris’s energy seems drained.
What makes these elements so trying is the stiff nature of events that are supposed to be spontaneous – for example, Harris’s interactions with celebrity guests. Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) serves as the premiere’s guest announcer and the majority of her “banter” with Harris is so pre-packaged, it’s nearly impossible to find any genuine ingredients within it.
The same goes for Nicole Scherzinger, whose involvement would be exciting if The Pussycat Dolls were still a thing, which they aren’t. When the singer announces the segment “Neil vs. Everyone,” the poor attempts at humor stick out like a sore thumb, as even the studio audience can’t muster a laugh.
Furthermore, the pre-taped portions need improvement. Consisting mostly of Harris dressing up in a number of disguises, these parts of the show bring some amusement but are never laugh-out-loud funny. The bigger issue is the toll these have on the live element of the show. These bits of ready-made material don’t stand out; they actively detract from the show, feeling like filler as they pad out the hour. Meanwhile, NBC never misses a chance to promote corporate synergy during these sections by having Harris, in the guise of a clueless Austrian television host, interview the judges of “The Voice.”
From a technical standpoint, the show operates mostly without a hitch, but some missed opportunities reveal mismanaged direction. Most glaring is the end of “Neil vs. Everyone,” when Harris, racing against Witherspoon on a towering obstacle course, is about to finish. He grabs onto the zip line and begins to slide down, headed for victory. However, the camera decides to turn its attention to Witherspoon as she begins to mount the zip line, completely missing Harris crossing the finish line and the subsequent victory explosions.
It’s a shame because the intentions of the show at least seem well-placed. The games that select audience members and viewers at home can play for prizes are easy enough that most can win. Harris seems game for anything, made evident in the big end of the show performance; he obviously wants people to have the “best time ever.” But, unfortunately the execution fails its host as the show mostly slogs through its runtime, occasionally throwing stuff at the screen randomly, like Carrot Top, in an attempt to reinvigorate excitement that is already gone.