‘American Auto’ Review: A Strong Engine Awaiting Direction

Workplace sitcoms require more than just funny setups and universally relatable situations to thrive. They also need to say something new and different about American work. And in 2022, as the country moves past the Great Resignation and into the great unknown, that presents quite an opportunity.

Whether NBC’s new sitcom American Auto can step up to that big plate is uncertain. It has a lot going for it, including the likable cast and writing that often (though alas not always) goes beyond the obvious jokes.

But for a network sitcom these days, that’s not enough. You need to give people a reason to tune in now that they have so many choices. We’re long past the days when viewers would watch whatever followed Friends or Seinfeld because they had no other screen to look at. These days, with screens abounding, people only watch TV shows based on merit.

American Auto could develop into a show like that. It just needs to refine its message a bit more.

The program, which is streaming on Peacock and will air Tuesdays on NBC starting next week, follows a Detroit legacy car company that has just brought in its first female CEO. Katherine Hastings (a well-cast Ana Gasteyer) is a former Big Pharma executive who knows little about cars but has the board’s trust to bring the business into the 21st century. Her pharma background taught her valuable lessons on how to sell.

“You don’t start with boner pills. You start with hypertension and move your way up to boners,” she tells her employees as they contemplate a new sales proposition.

She joins a management team that wants to impress her but also worries about her lack of knowledge about the industry. By the end of episode two, it’s clear Hastings is experiencing growing pains after the company becomes involved in a criminal chase so epic, it makes people forget about O.J.’s White Bronco.

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The plotlines for each show are well-conceived and generate natural laughs. In the pilot, after the Payne Motors team realizes that a revolutionary new self-driving car can’t be brought to market because of a flaw in development that results in hitting a Black employee, the team brainstorms ways to salvage the project.

“What if we painted the [white] car black?” one asks, then explains, “optics-wise, I think a white car that hits black people looks worse than a black car that hits Black people.”

Michael Benjamin Washington, who plays product development guru Cyrus, is a cast standout. His dry delivery and earnestness provide big dividends, such as when he shares his knowledge of the difference between murders and mass killers in episode two. Also in that episode, he’s tasked with creating a car that alerts people when a kidnapping victim is inside (see reference to that O.J.-like chase). The reasoning and resulting invention are a spot-on satire of what happens in corporate America when executives fail to see the forest for the trees.

More moments like that will help American Auto find its footing and perhaps become appointment TV.

The Tycoon Herald