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As the Internet has proven, there are few pleasures greater than watching Patrick Stewart having fun. (Google “Patrick Stewart Salt-n-Pepa” if you don’t believe me.) So there’s reason to despair during the horribly unfunny pilot episode of the actor’s newsroom workplace comedy Blunt Talk, created by Jonathan Ames, executive produced by Seth MacFarlane and airing Saturdays on Starz beginning August 22nd. Surely Stewart’s talents are going to be utilized for more than a boorish, coke-snorting riff on Network’s Howard Beale?
They are, thankfully, but we still have to deal with the unpromising beginning. The Blunt Talk premiere focuses on a particularly terrible night-and-next-day in the life of British expatriate/Los Angeles-based cable television pundit Walter Blunt (Stewart). We first see him having a drink in a swanky Los Angeles pub where he regales the bartender with tales of woe, throws some shade at an overeager admirer and trades some friendly banter with a very familiar looking piano player. (Let’s just say Star Trek: The Next Generation devotees will be in ecstasy.)
Eventually, through a series of ridiculous contrivances, Blunt finds himself standing atop his car, spouting Shakespeare in front of paparazzi cameras and an army of police officers who have interrupted his back alley tryst with a trans female prostitute. He also happens to be high on marijuana-infused chocolate because why the hell not? Blunt’s behavior does not go over well at the office the next day, though he finagles one more broadcast before the inevitable firing in an attempt to set things right.
Every moment of the opening episode is off in some way. The pacing is slack. The performers, from Jacki Weaver as Blunt’s stalwart executive producer Rosalie to Adrian Scarborough as the newsman’s militaristic valet Harry, act bug-eyed and desperate. Very few of the jokes land, and those that do (one involves a totally random use of a clip from the 1956 Burt Lancaster drama Trapeze) only elicit a meager chuckle.
The pilot feels very MacFarlane in its scattershot satire of cable news (Anderson Cooper jokes!) and its overall juvenile naughtiness, which basically boils down to: Watch Professor X be baaaaaaaaaaaaad! But this is a case where it’s fortunate critics could preview 7 of the first season’s 10 episodes, because Blunt Talk gets much, much better as it goes along. This is mainly due to Ames’s strange sensibility, which is muted in the early installments, but fully takes over by episode three. Fans of the writer-showrunner’s drily bizarre HBO series Bored to Death (a portrait of a pot-smoking artist, played by Jason Schwartzman, who moonlights as a private eye) will get more of the same offbeat banter and light-touch plaintiveness, though Ames’ sense of humor (structured around high-concept lowbrow gags) is an acquired taste.
In the third episode, for example, Blunt and his coworkers deal with a variety of sexual hangups, and in description these ribald character shadings sound eminently groan-worthy. One of the producers, Jim (Timm Sharp), has a thing for expensive ladies shoes. Another, Celia (Dolly Wells), trolls for companionship on a British dating app named “Bangers and Match.” And Blunt’s right-hand-gal Rosalie is shown to be living in a happy open relationship with her loving husband (Ed Begley Jr.) — a good thing since segment producer Martin (Karan Soni) likes nuzzling against her breasts every now and again.
If MacFarlane were running the show, these details would be fodder for derisive buffoonery. But in Ames’ hands — as well as the actors once they settle into their characters (which they fortunately do very quickly — there’s a profound melancholy underlying every vulgar moment. In one hilarious scene in a later episode, the twice-divorced Blunt goes to visit his young son at elementary school and EDM legend Moby (playing a suitor for Blunt’s ex-wife) makes an ill-advised wisecrack about child molestation. Once the WTF aura of this bizarre interaction dissipates, Blunt’s pain, and not just at the bad joke, comes potently to the fore.
This is likely what will give Blunt Talk whatever staying power it has. (A second season has already been ordered.) Pilot episode aside, Ames doesn’t skimp on the inventively outlandish absurdity. But it’s the simmering, slowly bared pathos — the sense that these clownish people are constantly trying and failing to suppress something all-too-human about themselves — that distinguishes it from the cringe-comedy crop.
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