Best Time Ever, Neil Patrick Harris’s bold, bedazzled, cheesy-as-hell and inevitably polarizing attempt to revive the variety hour, posed one searing but provocative question: What if Reese Witherspoon died on a Neil Patrick Harris-hosted variety show?
The button-cute Oscar winner, who starred as the celebrity guest announcer on Tuesday night’s debut episode of NPH’s good-natured fever-dream circus jamboree, defied death by participating in a Fear Factor-lite challenge early in the episode.
The self-proclaimed karaoke enthusiast—“I won an Oscar for singing somebody else’s songs. Karaoke’s done all right by me!”—was forced to race up a precarious-looking ladder contraption that was suspended high in the air (she looked legitimately terrified the entire time), but lived long enough to be hugged by the Pussycat Dolls’ lead singer and wave pom-poms to a Pitbull song while men did flips on pogo sticks behind her.
Harris, in a way, risked death, too. On the one hand, because he was the one racing Witherspoon on said ladder contraption. But more importantly, he’s the noble fool trying to bring the variety show—or some indescribable amalgam of TV genres that certainly looks like a variety show—back to television.
Much has been made about what exactly Best Time Ever is, or to paraphrase one of Harris’s opening lies, why in god’s name he’s doing this.
Given the ho-hum track record of beloved celebrities who have valiantly tried to rescue the variety show—Maya Rudolph, we still love you—it’s perhaps unsurprising that Harris himself has walked back the language a bit, instead referring to Best Time Ever as “part Fear Factor, part primetime game show, part hidden camera, part SNL Digital Short, part Tony Awards.” OK, Neil. That is an excellent way to describe your variety show.
As for why he did it? Perhaps, on the one hand, to answer the question, “Would the Ellen show work in primetime?” (More than one Twitter user called out similarities between some of Best Time Ever’s bits and segments that have appeared on the world’s other famous genial gay person’s daytime talk show.)
But beyond that, Harris is a smart showbiz player and a consummate entertainer with the kind of public goodwill that allows for risk taking. The best part about him and his ascent to fame is his willingness to exploit his myriad talents and take those risks (not to mention his ability to convince a coterie of random-ass celebrities to throw dignity to the wind and take those risks with him).
The consistent failure of variety shows in recent years should make a case for why the genre can’t be resuscitated, but a scan of the pop-culture and social climate really speaks otherwise.
What are Lip Sync Battle, Hollywood Game Night, and American Ninja Warrior if not fodder for variety shows? The most successful elements of Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show and James Corden’s Late Late Show are celebrity-stuffed viral fodder—mini game shows, musical numbers, and hidden-camera pranks—that, again, add up to a variety show.
One TV’s writer’s Twitter timeline while Best Time Ever aired was a cringe-inducing stream of snark slamming the scattershot enthusiasm of the show's potpourri of indulgent silliness—#BleakTimeEver was one choice hashtag—while another critic posited a scenario in which Harris wakes up naked at the end, covered in tattoos Blindspot-style in the #MostNBCCrossPromotionEver.
But you gotta know your demographic (and I suspect Harris does).
There was not one bit from Best Time Ever that I could not see my Great-Aunt Susan or my parents’ neighbor Gail sharing on Facebook, tagging their book club members in the comments and accruing dozens of likes. The show was essentially a collated version of those “You Wouldn't Believe What Happened When…” videos and headlines that thrive on social media and viral monitors like BuzzFeed or Upworthy.
It’s a smarter conceit than the show might get credit for.
Just think back to the Best Time Ever premiere. Segments could have been titled “Neil Patrick Harris Wore a Disguise and Stalked a Newlywed Couple and You’ll Never Guess What Happened!” or “Neil Patrick Harris and Reese Witherspoon Are Suspended In the Sky. Find Out Why!” Even nostalgia was involved: “Gloria Gaynor Sang Karaoke to ‘I Will Survive’ and It Was Everything.”
Isolated on Fallon’s show or on Ellen, these bits (albeit in tighter versions) would be heralded. But there was something about them in succession and emblazoned as part of your Best! Night! Ever! that many people (again, purely on my Twitter timeline) seemed to find grating.
There were times, certainly, when Harris seemed a bit like the dinner party host who keeps forcing you to play another round of Celebrity when you just want to eat your chocolate cake, dammit. And if I were given my own TV show I’m not sure Carrot Top would be among the first people I would call, though Reese Witherspoon and definitely Nicole Scherzinger would be.
(Stay tuned for the sequel to this article, titled “Why Nicole Scherzinger Is the Most Underrated Pop Performer of Her Time.” It is backed up by hours of pinot grigio-fueled 2 a.m. YouTube research, and the evidence is bulletproof.)
By the grand finale, in which Harris did a backward somersault off a pogo stick, I could maybe buy the argument that the show was veering toward masturbatory. But I do have to say that if I was ever given my own show, I would also use it to save the career of a Pussycat Doll and perform my own rendition of “And I'm Telling You…” from Dreamgirls in front of Gwen Stefani, so cut NPH a break where it’s deserved.
Plus, let’s not forget how much stock we as a nation put in the simple pleasure of watching celebrities giggle at themselves. Best Time Ever boasted Reese Witherspoon’s giggle. Game over.
I think I’m in the minority stressing all of these positives from the premiere, but sometimes you have to be the man out on the limb—the Legally Blonde star out on the teetering Erector set hovering over a parking lot—in order to make your point.
Because the biggest reason to endorse more episodes of Best Time Ever, overly cheesy and occasionally disjointed as it can be, is the fact that we haven’t given any of these recent attempts at variety shows a second episode or an opportunity to grow. Osbournes Reloaded, Rosie Live, The Maya Rudolph Show: they were all one and done.
The possibilities are endless. Neil Patrick Harris and Woody Harrleson sing that song from Frozen while jousting on pedestals over a pit of synchronized swimmers. Cybill Shepherd and Mandy Patinkin face off in a round of Russian Roulette while Carly Rae Jepsen sings the score from Miss Saigon. Christine Baranski dresses up in a drag as a filthy old man and breaks into Fifth Harmony’s dressing room. Jim Parsons and Katharine McPhee lead an audience-filled game of Red Rover. And then Carrot Top shows up!
But there are serious possibilities here, too, like the notion that a celebrity as famously hardworking and irresistibly entertaining as Harris could respond to feedback, tinker with what was working and what wasn’t, and perform a miracle: front a variety show that people will watch today.
And then kill Reese Witherspoon in sweeps.