Great News may crack jokes about Ivanka Trump and Bernie Sanders, but for a sitcom about a bunch of news-business workaholics, it has a surprisingly retrograde approach to how a modern cable newsroom would actually run. As we’re reminded by Portia’s references to the leg-baring tutelage of Roger Ailes, the industry is increasingly more of an executive’s game than a host’s. Given the ample ageism on display at MMN, it’s hard to believe that John Michael Higgins’s preening Chuck, with his second-place ratings in a 4 p.m. time slot, would have enough clout to control anything beyond firing interns with impunity.
But if Chuck was Great News’ answer to Ted Baxter, one of the show’s early mistakes has been making him too much of a puffball for the sake of likability. For the newsroom dynamic to work, Chuck needs to be a credible threat; he may be more lovable as is, but he also leaves a vacancy at the heart of the conflict. The slack could be taken up by Adam Campbell’s Greg, but his character remains undercooked, sometimes mouthily inappropriate and sometimes a frazzled wreck. No one seems to actually be in charge at The Breakdown, and there aren’t a lot of stakes.
That’s a serious issue for “Chuck Pierce Is Blind,” a classic boss’s-day-off episode that struggles to be convincing because no one is actually all that afraid of the boss. The story revolves around Chuck, who’s known for never missing a day of work, bowing out to accept an award from the obviously fake Young and Cool magazine — a ruse to cover up dual cataract surgery. The only person he trusts enough to confess the truth to is Carol, who’s been overwhelmed by the technological demands of her new job, and all too eager to take on the familiar task of mothering him back to health.
The resulting power vacancy (which causes Greg and Katie to outright dance with delight) should be an opportunity to add a little dimension to the newsroom crew, particularly Horatio Sanz’s Justin, who’s had only a couple of scenes over the past two episodes. Greg gets a little time for development when he discusses how he doesn’t want to turn into Chuck, but the focus is mostly on the secondary staff, who come collecting on Greg’s longtime use of Chuck’s disapproval as a shield for their bad ideas for the show.
All of those ideas get thrown into the blender at once, and while a few prove to be funny (Portia takes Ailes’s advice to 11 by going full Basic Instinct in a PVC skirt), most of the rest — a graffiti backdrop, a Rockapella-esque intro, some guy in an Abe Lincoln getup — are tired. It would have been the ideal moment for the show to add some satirical bite, but it instead goes for the easy laugh of a unicorn shooting lasers out of its eyes.
So far, Great News has been at its funniest and most poignant when it examines the foibles of its Boomer characters, and this episode is no exception. In these early days, series creator Tracey Wigfield seems well aware that the chemistry between Higgins and Andrea Martin is the show’s biggest strength, and gives them plenty of solo screen time.
But while it’s fun to watch Chuck and Carol enact their sitcom version of Misery (“This is where all my mothering supplies are! Soup and expired medicine and four closets full of nothing but quilts!”) and invent wonderfully bizarre songs about themselves to the Mission: Impossible theme, it’s also a little bit of a bummer to see them hoard Great News’ freak flag all for themselves. Especially because Wigfield herself is a total delight every time she pops up as apocalyptic weatherwoman Beth, who gets all the best and weirdest lines. (“The year: 2018. The reality: you’re all dead.”)
In their rush to cover a lot of character territory and make viewers feel caught up, new sitcoms can often assign roles too rigidly, painting characters into tight boxes that they have to stretch out of over time. Perhaps because of her breadth of experience, Wigfield has moved in the opposite direction, trying not to give any of them too many set traits. But with six main cast members to juggle and a quickly growing roster of sideshows like Carol’s always-on-speaker BFF Angie, Great News could use a little bit of thematic focus and some real stakes for its characters. Like Carol and Katie, it needs to take a few more risks to become truly exceptional at its job, even if it means the occasional failure.