[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
The first episode of “American Auto” has a classic sitcom pilot element: a bunch of new acquaintances banding together to solve a problem. Incoming car company CEO Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer), in a bid to make a splash in her new role, overpromises on a flashy new car prototype. The resulting havoc caused in the boardroom and at the announcement venue forces a team including product designer Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), comms director Sadie (Harriet Dyer), and factory employee Jack (Tye White) to all cobble together some sort of workable, presentable solution.
In nine new shows out of 10, the curtain lifts on that makeshift model and it’s surprisingly passable. Maybe it’s not a sleek, top-of-the-line design, but the team bands together to make something that sends them off with a big smile, a modest win, and a newfound sense of camaraderie. In “American Auto,” their Frankenstein’s Mazda is a misshapen thing. Though it technically qualifies as a car design, Washington’s extended description of what it actually looks like ends up being the biggest laugh in an opening episode with more than a few options to choose from.
Despite not having that neat and tidy triumph in that opening episode (or maybe because of it), the ensemble of “American Auto” arrives fully assembled. (Understand that it’s very hard to not use car-adjacent metaphors when describing a show about a bunch of people working at a car company. That’s the last one, I promise.) The show uses a pre-pilot one night stand between Sadie and Jack as a way to connect the two characters, but it also gives the two of them other business to worry about. (Katherine assuming that the pair are constantly one step away from ripping each other’s clothes off at any moment is still a fun early running gag.)
Cyrus is a clear early-season MVP, a character who’s competent and knowledgeable without being immune to some mistakes himself. He’s one of the biggest assets a show like this can have, someone with enough of a variety of interests that he’s a conversational authority and an enigma all at once. (His confidence in telling everyone the classification of serial killers in the second episode is just one step in what promises to be a long list of surprising areas of Cyrus expertise.)
The rest of the core Payne Motors crew is in a similar position of having a clear starting point but being far from fixed pieces in this puzzle. Elliot (Humphrey Ker), the company’s legal counsel, is positioned at the start as an eager corporate yes man. But as the season progresses, his out-of-office misadventures begin to add up to something more. And, as administrative assistant Dori, X Mayo makes the most of every minute she’s on screen. (“He was skinning people?!” and “You want me to check if he’s a Dexter?” is an incredible one-two combination and proof that the show is already on a roll halfway through its second episode.) Her coworkers quickly learn to underestimate Dori at their own peril.
Another benefit of deemphasizing the Sadie/Jack awkwardness early on is that it lets them be the closest thing to a voice of reason in this new Payne Motors ecosystem. Sadie is juggling the duties of her job with trying to figure out what Katherine actually wants from/for her new position. Jack is brought in by the company as someone to represent a working class perspective — the show gets to see upper management incompetence through his eyes while showing that the company he works for largely has no idea how to use him either. All of these touches reflect series creator Justin Spitzer’s past success on the recently departed NBC sitcom “Superstore” (and make for a nice cross-network complement to fellow recent premiere “Abbott Elementary“).
Much like not letting Katherine off the hook at the end of the pilot, “American Auto” isn’t afraid to show that its on-screen boss is out of touch. And not in a goofy oafish way (that’s capably handled by Jon Barinholtz, who’s eerily good at playing Wesley, the skeevy, underqualified failson Payne family heir). In addition to the many nods toward her past misdeeds as a pharma exec, Katherine is constantly misjudging people based on easy assumptions. Even when things end up working out, those backfiring moments show that she has a lot to make up for. Maybe that’s the most exciting part of “American Auto” going forward: If there are lessons to be learned here, they’re going to flow up the Payne Motors organizational chart and not the other way around.