Isn’t a variety show supposed to be fun? The heyday of variety programs ended long ago (despite NBC’s attempts to usher us back into that era), so the format is prone to feeling outdated and out of place in the current television landscape no matter what, but the basic aim of a show like this isn’t complicated: a variety show is supposed to be fun, to entertain, to make audiences laugh and enjoy life for an hour. So why is Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris uncomfortable, embarrassing, and hard to watch?
There was a lot to unpack in the live series premiere of Best Time Ever, perhaps the most inaccurately titled show in history. Prior to its premiere, Neil Patrick Harris and producer Siobhan Greene teased the show at length during the Television Critics Association tour, revealing that it will be a mixture of pranks, game shows, celebrity guest stars, and more. And while that much was true, virtually everything in the hour was executed so poorly that I watched certain segments with my hands over my eyes, cringing just as uncontrollably as I do while watching a purposely uncomfortable scene in The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Best Time Ever boasts about its emphasis on audience participation, but that audience seems less like run-of-the-mill fans having the Best Time Ever and than stiff pawns forced to nod and smile while Harris does his thing. They try to seem surprised and enthusiastic, but there is almost a hint of Stockholm Syndrome there; I’ve been to multiple show tapings before, I know how quickly insanity sets in when you’re sitting in a seat for hours, clapping and cheering at the instruction of a light-up sign or an underpaid production assistant. I’m sure the majority of them are having a grand time, but as a viewer watching this all unfold, it’s hard to imagine they’re feeling anything but uncomfortable terror.
See, the pranks aren’t of the “look under your seat and find something silly!” variety — they’re deeper, go on for longer, and are perhaps evidence of some sort of dark, pathological comedy condition. Harris tells weird secrets about specific audience members (how funny!), but then singles out one couple and reveals that he was the bellhop at their hotel, standing creepily as they took selfies. He was the mascot at the sports event they attended, stepping on their overpriced nachos. He was the creepy voyeur photobombing their wedding photos back in August, dancing behind them, hamming it up in the background, sticking his finger in the wedding cake, going to their honeymoon suite to roll around on their bed before they get there. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of old Criminal Minds episodes recently, but by this point in the episode, I was becoming increasingly worried that Neil Patrick Harris might actually be an overzealous sociopath distracting us from his true intentions with stellar dancing skills.
That’s harsh, of course, but it was a dreadful hour of television, one that seemed designed solely to make the case for why variety shows shouldn’t exist anymore. Granted, Harris is a gifted performer, but there’s a such thing as too much, and Best Time Ever is definitely too much. In one segment, Harris has Gloria Gaynor pop up to sing “I Will Survive” in a karaoke game show featuring surprised (but not really) viewers in their living room. This is supposed to, once again, include the audience and make them feel like they are a part of something but there is something about the way it’s handled that just ends up enhancing the separation between the show and the audience, between Neil Patrick Harris and the “normals,” between the expensive spectacle on a large set and the grainy camera footage of a plain living room.
But there’s still more! Reese Witherspoon is the series’ first guest announcer, and she succeeds in looking gorgeous and maintaining a smile when the banter bombs or as she’s forced to play up the ditzy blonde stereotype (and then, later, awkwardly hold pom-poms as she half-walks/half-lazily dances down the stairs). At one point, Witherspoon and Harris compete in some American Ninja Warrior-like segment involving climbing and ziplines because… I don’t know? I actually, truly don’t know what the point of this bit was supposed to be. Regardless, it’s followed by another prank: Harris in disguise as the host of the Austrian version of The Voice.
The above screenshot sums up the show pretty well: Pharrell, the unwitting participant, is perplexed and grimacing with disgust while Harris, the smug and self-satisfied prankster, smirks and seems to be thinking, “Aw shucks, I’m even so good at pretending to be bad!”
Just to ensure that the hour is packed from front to back with nonsense, Carson Daly is there. Nicole Scherzinger shows up and sings “Don’t Cha” while invasively caressing audience members’ faces. Carrot Top shows up to make a “holy mackerel” joke. There’s a rapid-fire pop culture game show. Harris has his own mini-me who wears a suit and… well, keeps wearing a suit; he doesn’t do much else. And the whole thing ends with a big performance number that finds Harris doing magic, tending bar, and hopping on a pogo stick.
Best Time Ever moves at a hyperactive pace but feels four hours long anyway. It is smug and shallow, as evidenced by the enjoyment Harris takes in trotting out his celebrity friends (and Carrot Top) so us lowly viewers can watch cool people prank cool people. It provides no laugh, no solid entertainment, and no surprises. The series is not the best time ever. It is the best at only one thing: effectively killing the variety show.