Detroit, MI

NBC's American Auto Shows Why Hollywood Doesn't Get Detroit, the Midwest or Most of Its Ever-Shrinking Audience

Joseph Serwach

American Auto, the latest NBC attempt to redo The Office and Superstore - this time in Detroit, Michigan - shows Hollywood lost touch with middle America
Jon Barinholtz and Tye White in American Auto.NBC publicity image by Greg Gayne.

Why does Hollywood struggle to understand Detroit, the Midwest, and most of the U.S. TV audience? American Auto shows clearly Hollywood knows little about average Americans.

American Auto creator Justin Spitzer wrote for The Office and created Superstore, so you see the influences of both shows in his latest workplace comedy about Detroit, Michigan, and the auto industry. The series debuts on January 4, but NBC aired two previews on December 13. Hollywood loves recycling anything that might have once worked (until it clearly doesn't work).

“This is a workplace, where a bunch of people with very different interests and backgrounds and goals and values are thrown together in a world where being competitive and outshining each other is very helpful,” Spitzer told The New York Post. “The fun is seeing what goes on behind the closed door of the boardroom.”

The premise with potential: Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer plays Katherine Hastings, a snarky, successful drug company executive recruited to revive the 100-year-old Payne Motors (a parody of Ford). She admits she didn’t just take the job for the money, adding, “There were stock options.”

The amusing idea: she knows nothing about the auto industry (she uses Uber and doesn’t even drive). The fish out of water scenario offers great humor potential. For example, Ford Motor Co. famously lured one of its most successful CEOs from Seattle-based Boeing to Detroit. On the other hand, Chrysler collapsed under a CEO brought in from Home Depot. 

The show's seemingly great idea collapses in the opening scene

However, the great promise for humor collapses when we see the main reason the old “big” networks continue to see their audiences shrink each year: They don’t know much about America beyond the woke East and West Coasts.

SNL alum shines. Gasteyer is the best part of the show, and it would have been amusing to watch her character debate car people. But, unfortunately, the series collapses when we see that not one character understands the auto industry, Detroit, the Midwest, or any part of American outside Hollywood/New York City. It doesn’t seem like they’ve even visited Detroit.

The first scene of the first episode of American Auto.

No other character is believable. So instead, the show begins with the “executives” (no one looks or seems capable of acting like anyone you might even imagine working as a corporate executive or even studying for an MBA at any middle-of-the-road university). The series begins with the cast discussing naming a new vehicle, “Ponderosa.”

The diverse group of “executives” who look more like a group of young SNL wannabes tell us “Ponderosa” is the name of a tree (it is, but most Americans would need to search online to know that) and that it sounds “ponderous.”

Not one person in the room recognizes “Ponderosa” as the ranch on the 1959–73 №1 TV show Bonanza and the 2001 reboot Ponderosa) or the steakhouses with the same name (restaurants that have filled middle America for 60 years). 

So seconds into the first episode, the very first clue that no one in the room thinks anything like most Americans is as subtle as a strobe light.

Minor Motown reference. The show contains one Detroit-targeted bit of humor, a 10-second gag about how to pronounce the Detroit suburb of Westland (Michiganders use the harsh West-LAND pronunciation). A Detroit WDIV-TV microphone also appears, but otherwise, Payne Motors could have more easily been Tesla before it decided to flee California.

Length is a struggle for all new sitcoms. The greatest challenge of modern TV comedy? The length of ad times has grown over time: 22 minutes of showtime in a 30-minute time slot is too little to make a funny or believable sitcom (we get a string of jokes with no real story). In contrast, the showtime of 22 minutes is also way too long to be an amusing YouTube viral video. 

The most incredible gag falls flat. The great “gag’’ of the first episode is the driverless car that can’t see dark objects, so the vehicle is dismissed as “racist” because it stops for white people but runs over minorities. And how do the show’s creators see the working class?

Blue-collar model? The new CEO encounters Jack, the blue-collar factory worker, and promotes him to the executive suite to get his take on things (again, an idea with great story potential). 

But almost immediately, Jack removes his blue-collar outfit, instantly transformed into a perfectly polished and manicured Hollywood model with expensive clothes and stylish hair care seeming more like someone who never broke a fingernail than the “working-class voice.”

Takeaway: How could American Auto become a hit show? 

Get closer to reality. Truth is the essential element of all humor (you take something true and exaggerate it), and American Auto isn’t funny (there were maybe two laughs in the first two episodes) because no one gets the subject. 

The biggest problem with this show is its creative team: It would be like me writing a series about Istanbul (a place I’ve never been to).

Suppose the writers and actors hired even a few people from Michigan or spent some time studying and learning about America beyond the East Coast/West Coast bubble (think Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix or any classic TV show made before 1980). 

In that case, they might realize real America is ripe with stories and characters, making for genuinely great television. 

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