'Great News': TV Review
Tracey Wigfield, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new NBC comedy takes a few episodes to find itself, but Briga Heelan, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins and Nicole Richie make for a strong ensemble.
After winning an Emmy as co-writer of the 30 Rock series finale, Tracey Wigfield returns to NBC as the creator of a single-camera comedy about a perpetually single woman working with a team of eccentrics behind the scenes on a television show.
Great News also sports Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and Jack Burditt as executive producers, so it isn't surprising that the 10-episode first season, sent in its entirety to critics, shares much of its comedic DNA with 30 Rock. It also isn't surprising that through those 10 episodes, Great News isn't instantly as good as one of the greatest comedies to ever air on network TV. The 30 Rock standard, while unavoidable, is also pretty unfair. After a rough pilot, Great News rapidly begins to get laughs from all corners of its deep ensemble cast.
Briga Heelan stars as Katie Wendelson, news producer at the Secaucus, N.J.-based The Breakdown, "The No. 2 rated 4 o'clock cable news hour in the entire country, not counting the South, Midwest or top parts."
In lieu of outside friends or a long-term romantic partner, Katie has a co-dependent relationship with her often smothering, always encouraging mother Carol (Andrea Martin). Work is Katie's only refuge until Carol decides that it's never too late to follow your dreams and she applies to be an intern at The Breakdown.
Having her mother around all the time pushes Katie to the brink of madness, but having Carol at the workplace is a great opportunity for individual introductions to colleagues including initially dismissive executive producer Greg (Adam Campbell), amiable video guy Justin (Horatio Sanz), oddball meteorologist Beth (scene-stealer Wigfield) and the show's anchors Chuck (John Michael Higgins), whose bluster masks fears about his growing irrelevance, and Portia (Nicole Richie), who is either the embodiment of everything superficial and wrong with modern TV journalism or the deceptively savvy face of the future.
NBC is double-dipping episodes starting on Tuesday, helping audiences stick with Great News as it works its way through an initial 22-minute bout of that common disease known as pilot-itis. The attempts to justify the "Why would Carol be doing this?" question at the heart of the show are clunky, and Carol revealing things Katie told her in confidence about each co-worker as a means of delivering character-based exposition is flimsy, especially since very little we learn initially is relevant to roles that rapidly evolve to meet each actor's strengths.
No character is in more flux than Katie, who feels like she was initially written as half Liz Lemon and half an outlet for Wigfield's own quirky sensibility. Making Katie's neuroses play to Heelan's strengths is a process that takes several episodes and feels occasionally like a workshop. "Should she be a straight woman surrounded by goofballs?" Probably not. "Is it funny if she falls down a lot?" Maybe a smidge. "Is it funny if everybody frequently acknowledges how attractive she is as if it's some huge shock?" Not especially. "Is it funny when Katie relives youthful disappointments, often caused by her mother?" Why yes, especially when Ini Kamoze's "Here Comes the Hotstepper" is involved. Katie's generally strange enthusiasms make good use of Heelan's comic openness, previously displayed to strong effect on Ground Floor and Love.
There's also some uncertainty about Campbell's Greg, whose producing abilities and respect for Katie fluctuate in the early episodes, making it hard to know how to respond when the show inevitably decides that as the two young, single characters, they have to at least be floated as love interests. It's a problem the 30 Rock crew never had with Liz and Jack, but Greg's position as mentor/boss to Katie is less clear. If you make it to the season's last few episodes, Campbell's backstory and flustered Britishness finally begin to really work.
Even after 10 episodes, Great News could benefit from enhancing the warmth between Katie and Carol, who still comes across largely as exaggerated. Martin's performance works best opposite Higgins and Richie, whose comic personae are established quickest. In 30 Rock terms, Chuck is something of a middle-aged white Tracy Jordan, in that the writers love giving him inappropriate things to say, and Higgins can sell almost any extreme situation brought about by Chuck's ego, from blindness to rock-god aspirations. Portia's mix of obliviousness and confidence sometimes plays as Jenna Maroney-esque, but Richie showcases tremendous comic timing of her own and proves to be a real find here. Yes, Nicole Richie is a straight-up solid sitcom actress.
Rather than taking a scathing look at the CNNs or MSNBCs or Fox Newses of the world, the show is a much more gentle tweaking of local news and morning shows. The absence of cynical jaundice is probably where Great News most differentiates itself from that comparison I've been wallowing in. One could do a show that tears this genre to shreds, and it's possible that if Great News had been shot more recently, as opposed to in its entirety last fall, it might have taken on more darkness in the place of what currently is close to affection. Just don't go looking for too sharp a satirical edge.
The show's aggressive comic rhythms are straight out of the Fey/Carlock playbook with wide-ranging pop culture references, malapropisms, non-sequiturs, aggressive punning and parody cutaways like the British version of Shark Tank, Josh Duggar, a new Sue Grafton book or the popular app Biscuit Blitz that gives the season some serialized structure. The hit-to-miss ratio improves dramatically as the first season progresses.
Great News doesn't burst onto screens at 30 Rock-level, but neither did 30 Rock, a show that underwent extensive revisions both to its original pilot and then into subsequent episodes. I don't think Great News finds consistency in its first 10 episodes, but there are some strong episodes, some big laughs and an ensemble that could become really special if the show is given the chance to further tap its potential.
Cast: Briga Heelan, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins, Nicole Richie, Adam Campbell, Horatio Sanz.
Creator: Tracey Wigfield
Executive producers: Tracey Wigfield, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Jack Burditt and David Miner.
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)