In ‘American Auto,’ a Detroit carmaker struggles to ‘remain relevant’

DETROIT — The showrunner of NBC’s new workplace comedy apologizes in advance for the inaccuracies there may be in “American Auto,” which follows the struggles of an 100-year-old Detroit automaker making the transition to new technologies revolutionizing the industry.

It’s a storyline that’s happening in real time for Detroit’s three automakers. And now it’s grabbed the attention of Hollywood, as the first two episodes premiered Monday with a special preview on NBC. Fortunately for the Motor City, though, even if some of the plots may be inspired by contemporary real challenges, the humorous and awkward events of “American Auto” belong to a fictional fourth car maker: Payne Motors — yes, an intentional homonym for pain.

“I wanted a corporate workplace show,” Justin Spitzer, executive producer and creator of “American Auto” that’s filmed in Los Angeles, said during a Zoom call. “The industry, I wanted it to feel real and fundamental, something everyone can relate to. I still think when we think about an American company, we think of Detroit. The awareness of the Teslas should be a part of this world and will be. This isn’t about upstarts or 20-somethings or an Elon Musk character. It’s about a 100-and-some-year-old company that is struggling to remain relevant.”

Spitzer isn’t new to workplace comedies. He was the showrunner of NBC’s “Superstore” and prior to that, a writer on “The Office.” “American Auto” also is produced by Universal Television in association with Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment, Dana Honor and Jeff Blitz, who directed the pilot.

The 10-episode season starts with Payne getting a new CEO: Katherine Hastings (“Saturday Night Live’s” Ana Gasteyer), who is charged with keeping a floundering group of executives afloat as they reinvent the company’s identity amid industry changes. Although the brunette female CEO, the first in the company’s history, wears a leather jacket on the show’s poster and says she wants to be seen as decisive, Spitzer is adamant: “No characters are based on anyone. That is not supposed to be Mary Barra,” General Motors Co.’s CEO. (GM for its part declined to comment, saying it didn’t have enough information about the show.)

In fact, Hastings, who comes from the pharmaceutical industry, is quite clueless when it comes to cars, but she gets the job over Wesley (“Superstore’s” Jon Barinholtz), the sneaker-and-suit-wearing direct descendant of the automaker’s founder, who is relegated to consultant and denies ever wanting the top job.

Hastings leads the team consisting of Sadie (“The InBetweens'” Harriet Dyer), Payne’s ambitious and competent head of communications; Cyrus (“Ratched’s” Michael Benjamin Washington), the under-fire chief product designer; Elliott (“Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet Wesley’s” Humphrey Ker), the legalistic chief sales officer; and Dori (“The Daily Show’s” X Mayo), Hastings’ assistant. Hastings also promotes Jack (Detroit native Tye White of “Greenleaf”) from a blue-collar position on the test track to a role at headquarters.

“This is probably the most excited any of my friends and family have been for any project I’ve done,” White said. “Everybody from Detroit knows somebody who is most likely a family member that works in the auto industry in some capacity or an extension of it.”

Born in Detroit, White is an alumnus of Bloomfield Hills’ Brother Rice High School and the University of Michigan. He left a business career to pursue acting. He has uncles in the auto industry and notes he has family-and-friend discounts at all three Detroit automakers, though he’s a Jeep fan, driving a Detroit-assembled Grand Cherokee SUV.

“Having a connection to the automotive industry really allowed me to draw from personal experiences watching my uncles who have been in the industry for many years and then imaging now being put next to the CEO and head of design and engineering,” said White, who typically returns to town once or twice a year. “You see Jack trying to navigate between the two: He’s now up there, but he still has those relationships, those friends that are blue collar, who may remember him and know where he came from, and he’s trying to look out for them while also trying to navigate the new terrain of being up there with people that make all the decisions.”

Those are the people who initially drew Spitzer to the auto industry. He wanted a prototypical office and thought focus on a particular industry that’s relevant would be a better pitch. He liked that the auto industry was focused on manufacturing, was international and featured billion-dollar corporations. He initially wrote up the idea in 2013 and later updated it. NBC ordered the show to series earlier this year.

“I just remember it was like in 2008 the CEOs of the Big Three companies had to testify before Congress,” Spitzer said of the Detroit bailout. “They were driving their cars to D.C., and then they had to get in their cars and drive back. I thought, ‘God, that is a show.'”

Spitzer admits he’s “not particularly a car person,” so he had a lot of research to do: subscribing to industry publications, speaking with a member of the Obama administration’s autonomous vehicle task force and even taking a trip to Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, where he toured the F-150 pickup truck plant.

“I do as much research as I can, though undoubtedly, there are mistakes I am sure I am making,” Spitzer said. “I am sorry. I am doing the best I can.”

Although the show is centered on the auto industry, there’s plenty to appeal to non-motorheads, from office shenanigans to presentations gone wrong to a twist on the “will-they, won’t-they” workplace romance trope. And just like “Superstore,” which tackled subjects from unions to undocumented workers, “American Auto” will address relevant corporate topics: technology’s ability to recognize people of color, data privacy concerns and how companies decide what’s made in America and what’s not.

“I don’t feel that is something I have to do as a show creator,” Spitzer said of addressing social issues in the script. “I do feel if I am going to, I have to do with an awareness of the ramifications. If I am going to talk about race, it should at least not be harmful to the conversation.

“These are things any large corporation would face. It’s easy to say it’s an evil corporation that would want to manufacture anywhere. The costs are very different, and the effects are very different. We look at how these decisions are getting made behind the curtain.”

That hits home for Dyer. An Australian native (She cites Huntington Woods native Kristen Bell as an inspiration for her American accent), Dyer referenced GM’s decision to retire the Australian brand Holden last year as it exited right-hand drive markets.

“It was really sad for Australians because like an American car, we took pride in our Holdens, and they were built for generations,” she said. “I feel like America still wants to make its cars to be passed down. There’s a pride there.”

Dyer’s never been to Michigan, but she’s loved to drive since she was 16. She owns a Mini Cooper, but wants to take a look at Jeep’s new hybrids.

“I love this show, because the writing is so smart,” Dyer said. “Although it’s about the auto industry, it could be about any industry. It’s about people at the top of any giant corporation who are playing with a great deal of money and playing with a great deal of employees and how they continually try to do the right thing, but they get it wrong most of the time.”

———

‘AMERICAN AUTO’

Two-episode special preview aired Monday on NBC. The show will air weekly starting Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Episodes will be available to stream next day on Peacock, Hulu and the NBC app.

This story was originally published December 14, 2021 5:30 AM.