The journey of Neil Patrick Harris from teenage sitcom star to grown-up sitcom star to America's favorite awards show host -- if I may speak for you, America -- has been one of continuing revelation and reinvention, adding talent to talent: Acting, singing, dancing, magic -- you want MGM to come back just to make musicals for him to star in.
By the end of Tuesday's premiere of "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris," a new NBC series he hosts and performs in, the man called NPH had added to his public accomplishments balancing a baton on his nose, acrobatic mixology and doing a back flip off a pogo stick. But even when he is showing off a little, even when he is telling you in some way that he knows you know he's good, and looks good -- 42 going on 24 -- he stays likable.
Based on a long-running British program, the more humbly named "Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway" -- whose scamp-ish hosts, Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, made an unidentified cameo appearance in the show's closing production number -- "Best Time Ever" is a mix of games (played with the studio audience and the audience at home) pranks (played on ordinary people and celebrities), music and dance. If you didn't like one segment there was another segment coming along shortly, and if you didn't like that segment, there was another one following soon after that.
This proved a good thing Tuesday. While the show, which is broadcast live, hit most of its marks logistically, and was busy and noisy enough to keep a viewer's attention, it often felt half-baked. For all the cheering from the crowd and from the stage, it was something short of the best time ever.
A segment in which Harris revealed to a couple from the audience that he had been secretly present through their wedding and honeymoon fell flat, as did one in which he disguised himself as the new host of the Austrian version of "The Voice" in order to confuse its American cast, suggesting that improv may not be the star's strongest suit. (It did, however, provide a lot of screen time for "The Voice," which is also on NBC and about to start a new season.).
More successful was a race, against guest announcer Reese Witherspoon, up a scaffolding suspended high in the air outside the studio. But the show, which also featured disco diva Gloria Gaynor in a "karaoke" game, and some brief but promising business with spangly co-host Nicole Scherzinger ("I am so excited for you that I'm here," she told Harris), only reached its full height in the final segment -- a big, chaotic production number set to Pitbull's "Don't Stop the Party."
Enough of it was good to hope for better. Live TV is a risky business, by definition (and inclination); it takes time, paradoxically, to find itself. (As every new late-night host can attest.) There should be room in prime time for such family-friendly silliness, and Harris is just the sort of performer to tempt viewers who might otherwise feel too cool for this school.