We recently previewed USA’s First Impressions, starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Dana Carvey. The show premiered this week, and it looks like a winner. The series pits aspiring comics in an “impression off” to wow an audience of judges and a celebrity guest for a prize of $10,000. It’s not a competition show, like Last Comic Standing; it’s a game show with new contestants every week. In fact, it feels a bit like a mashup of Lip Sync Battle and Whose Line is it, Anyway?, with a bit of Hollywood Game Night thrown in.
Three contestants offer up their best celebrity impressions in a variety of bits and sketches, while Carvey and a visiting comedian (Steve Carell in the pilot) cheer them on, offer commentary, and occasionally join in the fun. Prinze keeps the fun moving as host and emcee.
We’ve been a bit weary of the competition show format, so it’s always nice to see a fresh, upbeat take, without all the season-long drama, eliminations, and infighting. First Impressions moves swiftly, giving each contestant plenty of time to showcase their talents. Contestants on the pilot spoofed both perennial favorites like Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, as well as surprising choices like the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde, A Mighty Wind) and Drew Barrymore. Everyone loves standup comedy, and the impersonators were fun to watch. But the real draw for the show is Carvey and friends. Carvey’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and the overall tone of the show is welcoming and collaborative, not combative. At one point, when two contestants had each done impressions of Sharon Osborne, Carvey leaped from his chair and said, “I want to see the Sharons together,” initiating a joint bit where the comics played off each other. It was a great moment that took this show to another level–not just game show, but comedy workshop.
Contestant Rusty Sarhan took home the prize for his takes on Jennifer Coolidge and Daniel Radcliffe, but you got the feeling all the comics came away winners, just for getting the chance to yuk it up on stage with Dana Carvey and Steve Carell. Winners are chosen by audience vote, but the at-home audience is spared the manufactured suspense and harsh judgement of typical reality TV–letting us all concentrate on the fun. If I had any minor complaint, it’s that we learned nothing about the contestants themselves, beyond their names. In a show that feels so intimate, it might actually be nice to hear a bit about who they are and the work they’ve done. But for those who are truly curious, there are bonus features on USA’s First Impressions webpage. Upcoming guests include Jon Lovitz (Saturday Night Live) and Yvette Nicole Brown (Community).
In our own best impression of the late great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, we give First Impressions two thumbs up. First Impressions airs Tuesday nights at 9:30 pm on USA Network.