TV: American Auto (Season 1)

Justin Spitzer’s Superstore ran for seven seasons on the strength of its witty, fast-paced dialogue and ensemble chemistry. His new show American Auto is tonally similar, and again relies on the skillful interactions of a well-oiled ensemble, but despite the familiar mold there are subtle differences that make it perhaps more promising. Set in the Michigan offices of Payne Motors, American Auto focuses on the staff’s efforts to steer the struggling car company into the future—a challenge complicated by the inexplicable hiring of new CEO Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer), a former pharmaceuticals executive with no experience, understanding, or even interest in the auto industry. Katherine’s bumbling leadership propels the team into constant crises, most of which fall on the head of her generally sensible but conflict-averse communications officer Sadie (Harriet Dyer), who along with her mix of both reasonable and inept co-workers struggles to make ethical and logical sense of her work life.

American Auto is certainly not high art. Indeed, it’s a fairly conventional workplace sitcom occasionally over-relying on interpersonal nastiness and cringey situations. But Spitzer is sure-handed at managing this type of show, and American Auto has the advantage of Superstore in that it punches up at corporate power, rather than down at capitalism’s victims. Superstore was at its best during workplace meetings, when the staff of Cloud 9 engaged in bantery riffs, particularly those growing out of corporate policy passed down by out-of-touch superiors profoundly tone deaf to the challenges faced by their low-paid workers. American Auto, by contrast, focuses directly on management, a riper and more deserving target for satire. The show’s best episodes, like the masterful “Commercial” (in which a poorly executed tweet spirals into an out-of-control ad re-shoot), lean into this political agenda with razor-sharp insight into the cagey, cynical ways of big business. By being set in the halls of corporate power, the interpersonal nastiness is less troubling; these are well-off capitalists whose often-reprehensible attitudes warrant the odd insult. But there are enough glimpses of the sympathetic here—especially in the will-they, won’t-they chemistry between Sadie and a former assembly-line worker named Jack (Tye Smith), promoted in true Payne fashion for political reasons—to mitigate the self-absorbed behavior of Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), Wesley (Jon Barinholtz), Elliott (Humphrey Ker), and the other people in power. It will be interesting to see if this one has legs, but it’s off to a solid start.

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