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

Carson Daly jokes with host Neal Patrick Harris during last night's premiere episode of NBC's <em>Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris.</em>
Greg Endries
Carson Daly jokes with host Neal Patrick Harris during last night's premiere episode of NBC's Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris.

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.

Nicole Scherzinger plays sidekick to host Neil Patrick Harris on NBC's new variety show.
Greg Endries / NBC
Nicole Scherzinger plays sidekick to host Neil Patrick Harris on NBC's new variety show.

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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David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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