Some comedies need a few episodes, or sometimes even whole seasons, to get into their grooves. Great News is not one of those comedies.
Created by Tracey Wigfield and co-produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, all veterans of 30 Rock, this NBC series, which debuts Tuesday night, establishes its sharp, madcap, hilarious bona fides right from the jump. Given its pedigree and the fact that it’s a workplace comedy set in the media world — the focus is on the behind-the-scenes bedlam at The Breakdown, a national cable news program broadcast from Secaucus, New Jersey — Great News might sound like a spinoff of 30 Rock. It isn’t. But as is true of the sitcom’s codependent main characters, Katie Wendelson (Briga Heelan) and her low-flying helicopter mom Carol (Andrea Martin), you can definitely tell pretty quickly that they share some DNA.
The dynamic between these two women — Katie, a 30-year-old news producer desperate to earn some hard-hitting story assignments, and Carol, her suffocating mother who’s been hired as an intern for The Breakdown’s old-school, arrogant co-anchor Chuck Pierce (John Michael Higgins) — is what defines Great News. While that premise may sound a bit gimmicky, or, perhaps, a little like a sitcom version of that Nancy Meyers movie The Intern, the snappy, astute execution immediately dispels any misgivings. Perhaps anticipating Intern comparisons, Great News even astutely dares to take a friendly jab at Meyers’s body of work. “Why don’t we see that new Nancy Meyers movie where Chris Hemsworth builds a gazebo and then marries a hundred-year-old woman?” Carol suggests to Katie in the second episode. Did I mention that I love this show?
As was the case on 30 Rock and continues to be standard practice on another Fey-Carlock series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the jokes on Great News fly like fastballs whipping out of a pitching machine. In the rare instance that one is a dud, it’s okay, because a good one will likely cross the plate in a matter of seconds.
A lot of those jokes tend to be generational in nature. Not surprisingly, Carol — who’s been out of the workforce for three decades — is a bit out of her depth in an office environment. She has no idea what a PDF is and signs her internet search queries, “Sincerely, Carol Wendleton.” She’s a whiz on social media, though, especially Facebook, which sounds exactly right for a 60-year-old who’s always up in her daughter’s and everyone else’s business. Her unique set of skills makes her the perfect support system for Chuck, who has no idea how to communicate with his much younger, self-promotional co-anchor Portia (Nicole Richie) and is terrified that his seniority will be his downfall.
“It’s hard,” Carol tells Chuck. “You’re from a different generation. I don’t know what anybody’s talking about anymore.”
“Me either!” he agrees. “Like, who is Snapchat and is he one of the Minions? And are they all Pokémen?”
The dialogue is funny, but performers like Martin and Higgins, who are both fantastic, really make it sing. It’s thrilling to see Martin, such a versatile comedic talent, finally get a starring role in a series like this and truly get to run with it. Unlike the mother she plays on Difficult People, who clearly studied at the Lucille Bluth School for Withholding and Aloof Maternal Figures, Carol is perky, warm, and hypernurturing, but also scatterbrained and a compulsive worrier. Martin embodies her fully, right down to the eager smiles, agreeable nods, and tendency to bowleggedly race around the office in capri pants.
Higgins, who, like Martin, is a pro at improvisational comedy, plays Chuck with a vaguely Brian Williams-esque bluster. He says just about everything as though it’s breaking news and reads aloud from his self-aggrandizing autobiography during news meetings. (“1977, The Bronx: I had an idea for a new type of music.”) He also pitches a fit when anyone suggests that he needs to get with the digital times. “One false move,” he tells Carol, “and they’ll replace you with some hotshot young newsman who eats sriracha and drinks Lululemon.” In the third episode, when Chuck gets cataract surgery but nevertheless tries to anchor a live newscast while Carol feeds him lines via an earpiece, I honestly was laughing so hard I had to pause the screener for five minutes so I could compose myself.
But Great News isn’t merely taking potshots at the olds. For one thing, Wigfield, who also plays oddball weatherwoman Beth, feels an obvious affection toward the characters — Carol is apparently based on her own mother — that prevents the humor from descending into ageist meanness. For another, the show is equally critical of the youths. Portia, for example, is so fixated on building her own brand that she has no sense of what it means to adhere to journalistic standards. (“What if we did a segment called Am I Snapchatting My Vacation Wrong?” she offers during a pitch meeting; in a separate moment, she asks Greg, The Breakdown’s executive producer, played by Adam Campbell: “What’s a Walter Cronkite?”) Richie, best known for her TV work on the reality front, comfortably slides into place right alongside her more experienced comedic co-stars, dousing Portia in a blasé narcissism that seems all the sillier because it scares Chuck so much.
Then there’s Katie. As much as she hates it when Carol announces to the staff that her daughter has irritable bowel syndrome, Katie makes it clear that she genuinely relies on her mom’s advice and support, which is a slightly different take on a relationship dynamic that could otherwise seem too familiar. Plenty of movies and TV shows poke fun at coddled 30-somethings who refuse to grow up. Katie very much wants to be an independent woman but sometimes finds she’s unequipped to do so because her mother has been so busy protecting her from anything that smacks of the difficult or dangerous. Heelan, who’s had recurring roles on shows like Love, more than holds her own in scenes with Martin, bringing both zaniness and authenticity to her performance. Her exasperated “Mom!” hisses will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by his or her mother, i.e. everyone. Like Liz Lemon before her, Katie has a tendency to rattle off sentences before thinking about what she’s saying, then have panic attacks mid-paragraph. Heelan handles all that humiliation and word soup as if she’s been built to do so.
Like 30 Rock, Great News has its share of running inside jokes that speak to how well Wigfield & Co. have constructed a specific world. There are a number of digs, both subtle and direct, at Fox News that seem even more timely than they must have when originally scripted. But perhaps the best ongoing gag is the consistent refusal to fully reveal what Dave, Carol’s agreeable doormat of a husband, looks like.
From Carol’s perspective, the only thing that matters is her Katie, and the series always adheres to that same sense of tunnel vision. As dysfunctional as it may be to view things that way, from a TV comedy point of view, it’s an absolute delight. The first season of Great News consists of only ten episodes. My only major complaint about this show is that I wish there were more of it to watch right this very minute.