‘Best Time Ever’ Review: Neil Patrick Harris Show Is Not as Fun as Advertised

Live variety extravaganza neuters its star’s appeal

For its first half, NBC’s “Best Time Ever” feels like an extension of its lead-in, “America’s Got Talent.” Neil Patrick Harris is there, still showing Americans the optimal way to wear a suit, but his usual charisma feels tamped down as he presides over a series of thudding audience interactions. First he talks to a woman about her preference for using a toddler’s potty chair on long car rides, then he brings a newly married couple on stage and walks them through his recent stalking of their lives. Not only was Harris in disguise as a doorman when they checked in at the Plaza Hotel, but he was also dressed as Alabama’s Big Al mascot at a football game, and photobombed most of their wedding photos last month. Charming? Creepy? Either way, like any good horror film we’re never told why he singled out this particular couple.

There is then an execrable karaoke segment, co-hosted by Nicole Scherzinger, involving home viewers and Gloria Gaynor (though whether it’s the real Gaynor or the automaton who appears at weddings and bar mitzvahs is unclear) warbling–what else?–“I Will Survive.”

Things take a turn for the better at the midway point when Harris and Reese Witherspoon, serving as the premiere episode’s celebrity announcer, go outside to climb 15 stories up only to zipline back down. Suddenly the show snaps into focus as what it could be–Harris and his famous friends getting into scrapes and generally doing something less publicist-approved than the usual late-night talk fests. And Witherspoon’s distinctly put-out arrival back on earth (“You didn’t say we’d be doing that!” she chides him, just shy of angry) is one of the more authentic moments of the much-vaunted live telecast. One would not be blamed for suddenly wishing the whole thing could be rebooted before next week’s installment to become a celebrity edition of “American Gladiators.”

Less successful is the show’s intramural plugging when Carson Daly drops by to introduce a previously taped segment. Harris went undercover on “The Voice” as the host of the Austrian edition, who insults the judges while interviewing them and then performs a rendition of “And I Am Telling You” before cheerfully revealing his ruse. The judges, like almost everyone involved with the show, are nonplussed but mildly amused.

Most of what has made Harris a beloved fixture of live telecasts has been eradicated in this misguided attempt at revising the variety show format. His forte has always been the in-between moments, the throwaway jokes before getting on with the business at hand or the drama nerd’s zest for perfecting elaborate song and dance routines with Mickey-and-Judy-in-a-barn speed. (There’s a nod to that with the final musical segment, “The End of Show Show,” but it feels both over- and under-rehearsed).

“Best Time Ever” seems like nothing more than NBC and Harris’ attempt at finding his post-“How I Met Your Mother” career–is he a prankster, a la Ashton Kutcher with “Punk’d”? A lengthy, absurdly simple quiz segment with an audience member suggests that he might be debating following in Jane Lynch‘s footsteps as a game show host for the 21st century. But Harris has a very specific, spiky energy; there’s a reason his breakout adult role was sending himself up as a drug-addled, ego-bloated horndog in the “Harold and Kumar” movies. After a lifetime in show business, he seems disingenuous when interacting with the regular folks at home, and, as with the awards shows, far more at ease with celebrities.

A weekly variety series with Harris as its giddy, self-mocking ringleader is a brilliant idea. But “Best Time Ever” has been overly optimistically titled.

“Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris” Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.