TV: American Auto (Season 2)

For all its considerable attributes, something about American Auto doesn’t entirely work. Justin Spitzer’s follow-up to the uneven but generally winning Superstore, American Auto takes us to the offices of a fictional car company in Michigan, Payne Motors. Ineptly run by slapdash career CEO Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer), Payne is a third-rate player in the auto industry, trying to hold onto its market share in a challenging industry. Unfortunately, it has Katherine at its helm, and a core staff of sycophants and incompetents surrounding her who are not only incapable of reining in Katherine’s unpredictable impulses, but bring their own bad ideas to the table.

The ensemble workplace vibe of American Auto has its moments, and the cast—including doormat CCO Sadie Ryan (Harriet Dyer) and accidental executive Jack (Tye White), who fulfil the obligatory will-they won’t-they romance—is really quite good. Especially funny are Michael Benjamin Washington as Payne’s caustic designer Cyrus, and Jon Barinholtz as a cluebag nepo baby from the Payne family. The whole cast works well together, and when their dialogue veers into rapid-fire social commentary, there are stretches of razor-sharp humor to rival, if not exceed, Superstore at its best. What the show lacks is a rallying center. If Superstore made the occasional mistake of punching down on its lowbrow workers, American Auto overcorrects, punching up at its executive buffoons so brutally that there’s no incentive to see them succeed, beyond hoping they keep their jobs—thereby ensuring future antics. Their absurd incompetence is often quite funny, not to mention part of the point of the show’s irreverent critique of capitalism, but the show could stand to give its characters more moments of hope and competence, and maybe an occasional reason to root for them. The viewer is instead encouraged to not just hope for, but expect, Payne’s catastrophic failure—which would make for a rather counterproductive plot turn on a workplace comedy. Even if it doesn’t figure out the forest, I’ll probably stick around to laugh at the trees, but hopefully the writers will get a handle on this core problem and take American Auto to another level.

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