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Neil Patrick Harris Reimagines Variety Show Format In 'Best Time Ever'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last night, NBC gave the actor Neil Patrick Harris an hour of live TV for an unpredictable new variety show. It's called "Best Time Ever." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this debut mostly showed how hard it is to reinvent a 60-year-old format.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From its very first moments on air, NBC's "Best Time Ever" made sure you knew this was a new kind of variety show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

REESE WITHERSPOON: The wait is finally over. It's "Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris."

DEGGANS: For starters, host and executive producer Neil Patrick Harris got an Oscar-winning actress to be his announcer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

WITHERSPOON: For one night only, your star guest announcer is me, Reese Witherspoon.

DEGGANS: But more importantly, Harris and his crew cooked up a breathless blend of genres that move with the pace of a high-speed car chase. There were cute, game-show-like contests with viewers, pranks played on celebrities, sing-along moments with a disco star and an obstacle course race ending with a trip down a zip-line. One of the most involved segments centered on a couple Harris seemed to pick from the audience at random until he revealed that he had secretly been pranking them at key moments in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Tell me the single biggest event that happened to you this year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We got married.

HARRIS: You got married. I know.

(APPLAUSE)

HARRIS: See, I know you guys got married.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: You know how I know you got married?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How?

HARRIS: I wasn't there.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh.

HARRIS: No, I was there. Take a look.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: And there was a segment called Sing-along Live. That involved surprising viewers at home with the news that they were on live TV via a camera hidden in their homes with a chance to win $1,000 by singing along with disco legend Gloria Gaynor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll feel alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) I've got all my life to live. I've got all my love to give.

HARRIS: That's it.

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: All these bits were stitched together with a kind of jokey dialogue that Harris employed when hosting "The Oscars" and the "Tony Awards."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

HARRIS: So, Reese?

WITHERSPOON: Yes?

HARRIS: Are you excited to be our first guest announcer?

WITHERSPOON: Absolutely. I've been working really hard on my announcer voice.

HARRIS: Oh, great, let's hear it.

WITHERSPOON: That was it.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Let's give that one an A for effort but a C for comedic content. All these gimmicks seem designed to keep viewers from changing the channel, something old-school variety shows never had to worry about. Back in TV's early days, producers like Ed Sullivan regularly built shows around a wide array of performers, including a certain quartet from Liverpool.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW")

ED SULLIVAN: Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh yeah I'll tell you something...

DEGGANS: Straight up performance can feel old fashioned to modern audiences, so series like "American Idol," "America's Got Talent," "Dancing With The Stars" and even "The Tonight Show" add elements of game shows, talk shows and reality TV shows to make their programs feel more contemporary.

Despite its earnest energy, Harris's show drew lots of barbs on social media. One critic wrote on Twitter, it was like David Letterman crossed with a gay Christmas cabaret. Still, something about "Best Timer Ever" felt different and compelling. It's not a solid hit, but fans of good variety shows should give it a chance. When so much of network TV seems safe and formulaic, "Best Time Ever" deserves points just for daring to be unpredictable. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEST TIME EVER WITH NEIL PATRICK HARRIS")

HARRIS: (Singing) And I am telling you, I'm not going because I'm the best man you'll ever know. And there's no way I'll ever, ever go. No, no, there's no way, no, no, no, no way I'm leaving without you. And you, and you, and you, you're going to want me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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