REVIEW: NBC’s ‘American Auto’

American Auto on NBC
(From l.): Harriet Dyer as Sadie, Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, Jon Barinholtz as Wesley, Humphrey Ker as Elliot and Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in 'American Auto.' (Image credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

American Auto, a workplace comedy about a shockingly inept automobile company, officially premieres on NBC January 4. Ana Gasteyer plays Katherine, the new CEO of Payne Motors. She may not be the ideal chief executive of a car company, as she does not drive, and cares little for automobiles. Coming from the pharma industry, Katherine took the Payne job for the money, and does not have many — or, perhaps, any — ideas for cool car stuff. 

The incompetence at Payne is top to bottom, ranging from comms chief Sadie (played by Harriet Dyer) to corporate attorney Elliott (Humphrey Ker), along with Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), who seems to know more about serial killers than an automotive engineer should. 

Wesley Payne (Jon Barinholtz), a descendant of the founder with no discernible role in the company, is full of inappropriate suggestions for Katherine and nicknames for Jack (Tye White), along the lines of Jack Knife and Jack Hammer. 

Justin Spitzer, creator of Superstore, created American Auto. The pilot follows a one-night stand between Sadie and Jack. He’s a laborer from the Payne manufacturing facility who is elevated to management after he’s struck by a self-driving Payne car on the corporate campus. There is, in fact, a serious issue with Payne’s autonomous cars, which do not pick up on people of color in front of them. 

“On occasion, certain darker objects come up as not there,” Cyrus explains. 

Cyrus gets some of the funnier bits, including when he describes a new Payne model as something that looks like what results when Bjork, driving to the Oscars, crashes into Blossom, headed to the prom, and the wreck is addressed by a blind villager with no concept of modernity, and a spider on LSD … with bad taste. 

Outside of Cyrus, we didn’t laugh a whole lot. But American Auto does offer a batch of unique characters, who collectively suggest that the comedy’s potential looks a bit brighter than that of the worst auto manufacturer on the planet. 

NBC offered a sneak peek of the first two episodes December 13. The January 4 episode depicts a Payne earnings call that, true to the company’s character, doesn’t quite go as expected. ■

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.