Neil Patrick Harris' 'Best Time Ever': A Variety Show In Need Of More Variety

Sep 16, 2015
Originally published on September 16, 2015 3:00 pm

Over the past few years, NBC has tried a few times to revive the prime-time variety show, a TV format that once was as popular and ubiquitous as reality TV is today. NBC even has tried to inject the variety television genre with the excitement of live television, in hopes of luring viewers back to their television sets in real time.

But those previous NBC attempts, hosted respectively by Rosie O'Donnell and Maya Rudolph, fell flat. So now, with a new program based on a long-running, freewheeling British hit series, comes Neil Patrick Harris, the man who's scored repeatedly on live TV awards shows, as host of the Oscars, the Emmys and especially the Tonys.

This new live weekly variety show, the first fall TV series out of the gate, is called Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris. His sidekick is singer Nicole Scherzinger; each week features a different celebrity as the guest star and announcer — and each program is a mixture of mini-quiz shows, game shows, production numbers, stunt competitions and elaborate pranks, on celebrities and everyday people alike.

There were six major elements in Tuesday night's premiere — two mostly pre-recorded pieces in which Harris went undercover to fool people, three live competitions, and a big, frenetic song-and-dance-number finale. But in this first show, there wasn't quite enough of Neil Patrick Harris displaying his own talent.

Even when he punked the judges on NBC's The Voice by disguising himself and posing as the host of the Austrian version of The Voice, the capper was that he then sang, in character, as a surprise contestant when the judges' chairs were turned. It would have been great, I think, had Harris, who's starred in musicals on Broadway, sung all-out — to see if the judges would turn their chairs around to acknowledge his talent. Instead, he sang badly — on purpose — and no one voted for him.

Other elements of the premiere show, too, could have been set up with a little more care. The way ABC's Dancing with the Stars, for example, shows rehearsal footage before the performers come out live is a trick that Best Time Ever could employ very effectively. Show us Harris practicing his backflip off that super pogo stick, or show us how the homes were rigged with hidden cameras to surprise viewers in their houses with invitations to play live karaoke. That was the best bit of the night, by the way: Gloria Gaynor singing live in the studio, while viewers at home had to jump in, when prompted, to complete the next line — with a thousand dollars at stake.

I still have high hopes for this show, but it needs some fast midcourse correction, to allow Harris to interact more with his guest stars — and to do a little more singing and comedy himself. He's still the talent who's most capable of bringing back the variety show — but what this show needs is a little more ... variety in its variety.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last night, NBC presented the first new show of the 2015 fall TV season, a live variety series titled "Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris." Our TV critic David Bianculli watched it and has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: NBC has tried a few times over the past few years to revive the primetime variety show, a TV format that once was as popular and ubiquitous as reality TV is today. NBC even has tried to inject the variety television genre with the excitement of live television in hopes of luring viewers back to their television sets in real time. But those previous NBC attempts, hosted respectively by Rosie O'Donnell and Maya Rudolph, fell flat. So now with a new program based on a long-running, freewheeling British hit series comes Neil Patrick Harris, the man who's scored repeatedly on live TV award shows as host of "The Oscars," "The Emmys" and especially "The Tonys." This new live weekly variety show, the first fall TV series out of the gate, is called "Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris." His sidekick is singer Nicole Scherzinger. Each week features a different celebrity as the guest star and announcer. And each program is a mixture of mini quiz shows, game shows, production numbers, stunt competitions and elaborate pranks on celebrities and everyday people alike. It's a lot to take in and a lot to describe, even for the opening show's guest announcer, Reese Witherspoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

REESE WITHERSPOON: Welcome back to "Best Time Ever." Tonight alone, he's been to a wedding, a football game, gone undercover at "The Voice," climbed skyscraper, given out thousands of dollars in prizes, and now he puts it all on the line. Ladies and gentlemen, what more do you want from him? Mr. Neil Patrick Harris in the amazing end-of-the-show show.

BIANCULLI: There were six major elements in last night's premiere. Two mostly prerecorded pieces in which Harris went undercover to fool people, three live competitions and a big, frenetic song and dance number finale. But in his first show, there wasn't quite enough of Neil Patrick Harris displaying his own talent. Even when he punked the judges on NBC's "The Voice" by disguising himself and posing as the host of the Austrian version of "The Voice," the capper was that he then sang in character as a surprise contestant when the judges chairs were turned. It would have been great, I think, had Harris, who's starred in musicals on Broadway, sung all out to see if the judges would turn their chairs around to acknowledge his talent. Instead, he sang badly on purpose, and no one voted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (Singing) And I am telling you that I'm not going because I'm the best man you'll ever know. There's no way I could ever, ever go. No, no, there's no way, no, no, no, no way I'm leaving without you. And you, and you, and you, you're going to want me.

BIANCULLI: Other elements of the premier show, too, could have been set up with a little more care. The way ABC's "Dancing With The Stars," for example, shows rehearsal footage before the performers come out live is a trick that "Best Time Ever" could employ very effectively. Show us Neil Patrick Harris practicing his back flip off that super pogo stick, or show us how the homes were rigged with hidden cameras to surprise viewers in their houses with invitations to play live karaoke. That was the best bit of the night, by the way, Gloria Gaynor singing live in the studio while viewers at home had to jump in when prompted to complete the next line with a thousand dollars at stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) Go now, go. Walk out the door. Just turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore. Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? Did you think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die? Oh, no, not I. I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love I know I'll feel alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I've got all my life to live. I've got all my love to give.

HARRIS: That's it.

(APPLAUSE)

HARRIS: A thousand dollars, congratulations. Good for you.

BIANCULLI: I still have high hopes for this show, but it needs some fast, midcourse correction to allow Harris to interact more with his guest stars and to do a little more singing and comedy himself. He's still the talent who's most capable of bringing back the variety show, but what this show needs is a little more variety in its variety.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the online magazine TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with the founder of the church the House for All Sinners and Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Before becoming an ordained Lutheran minister, she was a standup comic with a drinking problem. Like Bolz-Weber, many of her parishioners suffer from addictions, compulsion and depression. She's written a memoir called "Accidental Saints." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.