Up to this point, Adam Pally’s career has been built around the exuberant, self-effacing comedian stealing scenes as a favored supporting player. Dating back to his breakout turn as Max in “Happy Endings” and including memorable appearances since then in “The Mindy Project,” “Lady Dynamite,” and “Joshy” (among others), Pally has proven an ideal addition to each of his projects thus far and always leaves you wanting more.
So it’s only fitting that as the great supporting actor graduates to leading man status, he ushers in a successor of equally delightful comedic charms: And that person is…Leighton Meester?
You’re goddamn right it’s Leighton Meester.
The two team up in the new Fox series, “Making History,” a joyful, self-aware comedy that falls squarely under the “don’t worry if it makes sense” approach to time travel stories. Pally plays Dan, a facilities manager at a Massachusetts college who discovers his father’s time machine and uses it to travel back to colonial-era America, where he meets Deborah (Meester), a pilgrim who doesn’t tolerate the accepted sexism all around her.
We’re introduced to the story after Dan’s initial trip back, when he returns to the present in need of a history expert — Chris, played by the pitch-perfect Yassir Lester — to help him correct a few past mistakes that have had drastic effects on the future. The two form an “odd couple” dynamic, with Dan as the innocent goofball and Chris the Type-A worry-wart, but it’s their sidekick from yesteryear who elevates the solid buddy comedy above similar fare.
Deborah may be the female lead in a series focusing on two men, but creator and writer Julius Sharpe (“The Grinder”) makes it clear quickly and emphatically she will not simply be playing “the girlfriend.” While Deborah distinguishes herself in the pilot through atypical action (Deborah knows how to wield a pistol) and meta-specific dialogue like, “You’re so ahead of your time,” it’s in a later episode, when the trio is asked to assume new identities that she lays out her role as clearly as possible: “No, I don’t want to be just a girlfriend. I want to be my own gangster.”
And she is! “Making History” can, from time to time, dip into the familiar formulas at its core — including treating Deborah as a doe-eyed fool often confused by simple items from her future (our past) — but Meester’s enthusiasm is so contagious it makes even the most obvious jokes work. Moreover, she knows how to milk the most out of Deborah’s innocence without coming across as dopey, keeping the feminist alive in her character no matter the situation. Jokes about her lack of knowledge are quickly followed up by jokes mocking those who dared mock her, and Meester infuses each moment with an optimistic tone that helps define her character. Deborah is intolerant to intolerance, and all the stronger for it.
To be fair, the former “Gossip Girl” star isn’t exactly a TV n00b. She’s been a strong character actress even before breaking out in the CW melodrama, and Meester has flexed her comedic chops in small, but effective doses prior to this showcase. But “Making History” is an ideal platform for Blair Waldorf to play against type: Eternally kind instead of deliciously evil, one can easily imagine Blair looking at Deborah with disgust and disdain, even as Deborah stares back with a smile so bright it could brighten Queen B’s black soul. (OK, OK: Blair was actually pretty well-rounded, but she was at her best when nastily scheming.)
“Making History” loses a bit of steam after its near-perfect pilot, but the four episodes made available for review illustrate an infectious playfulness and creative spirit. Episodes aren’t strictly standalone, and journeys back in time can carry on for more than one half-hour. Pally and Lester’s characters benefit from being virtual strangers instead of close friends, allowing for character development to occur naturally. We’re hoping Sharpe’s time on “The Grinder” had a stronger influence than when he was writing for “Dads,” meaning this show could only get more self-assured throughout Season 1.
But, to be 100 percent honest, we’re here for Leighton Meester. Pally has proven himself and Lester has all the markings of a soon-to-be star, but if more and more time is devoted to developing Deborah into a badass, time-traveling feminist icon, “Making History” could actually help change history for stock TV girlfriends. That time is in the past. Let’s keep it there.
“Making History” premieres Sunday, March 5 at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.