TV reviews

Review: Great News 1×1-1×2 (US: NBC)

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC

Do you miss 30 Rock? Do you miss a Tina Fey-produced, screwball NBC comedy set behind the scenes of the world of television, perhaps even one written by Tracey Wigfield, who won an Emmy for her writing on 30 Rock?

Really? Uh huh. Okay, that’s interesting. No reason in particular I’m asking, really. Just a bit of a random questioning straight out of the blue, there. Bit odd of me, huh?

Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated topic, blasting onto our screens we have Great News which is a bit like that lovely movie The Intern, in that it sees a golden oldie mummy (My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s Andrea Martin) deciding after the death of one of her friends to follow her dream by starting a new career. Coincidentally, that career is in TV journalism, just like her daughter’s (Ground Floor/Undateable‘s Briga Heelan). Even more coincidentally, she ends up as an intern in Heelan’s workplace, a New Jersey TV news show, where the already blurred boundaries between the mother and daughter’s lives become even more blurred.

Ha, ha. Fooled you. All those questions at the beginning weren’t random at all. I was talking about Great News there, too! Wasn’t I cunning?

Indeed, Great News feels like one of those “format sells” to Germany, where a show gets remade more or less identically, except with a slightly different setting and a completely new cast. Some of the characters get changed a bit, some of the dialogue gets moved from one character to another, but otherwise everything stays the same. And in English, this time.

Nevertheless, despite the huge amount of overlap between the shows in terms of writing and cast, Great News not only still feels fresh, it also remains funny, with joke following joke like machine gun fire. Not every joke hits, but they frequently do and are invariably very funny.

The format also mixes up the targets of the jokes. Whereas 30 Rock was all Liz Lemon’s efforts to keep an insane black man and a narcissistic woman happy, giving us both racial and gender comedy, here the jokes are largely generational as well as familial. We have Heelan and Martin’s mother-daughter relationship, lending itself to a lot of comedy about female neuroses; Martin’s age also lends itself to jokes about oldies’ abilities, both positive and negative.

On top of that, the stars of the show-within-the-show are a narcissistic aging white male newscaster (John Michael Higgins) and a terminally hip and stupid younger white female newscaster (the surprisingly good Nicole Richie). It’s largely Martin’s job to deal with Higgins, Heelan having to deal with Richie’s idiocy (“How about we do our piece about Snapchap… on Snapchap?”) while trying to advance the cause of serious journalism and her own career.

The Alec Baldwin of the piece is boss Adam Campbell (Harper’s Island), who’s both a potential love interest and a frequent foil for Heelan. And as he’s English, there are naturally jokes about that, too (“You Benedict Arnold!” “Benedict Arnold was the only one who wasn’t a traitor in that war!”).

I found the first two episodes to be both frequently laugh-out loud funny and actually funnier than the first episodes of 30 Rock itself, lacking the dramatic lulls that show did while it found its feet. Martin’s obviously a hugely powerful and funny force, but Heelan’s one of the few younger actresses who could hold her own against Martin and up for physical comedy as well – it’s good to see her finally be the star of a show at last. The show isn’t especially subtle, and no one’s holding back with the acting, but it’s frequently subtle in its unsubtlety (“Coming next – the hidden danger in your household’s gun collection”), and the humour and performances often have odd beats that feel improvised, giving them more interest than normal.

My humour’s a bit odd, but I think if you liked 30 Rock as much as I did, then I think you’ll like Great News, too.

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What have you been watching? Including Gallipoli, The Slap (US) and The Doctor Blake Mysteries

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

Time, I think, for another purge. “Why, Rob?” you may ask. “Lots of shows such as Constantine, Ground Floor, Spiral (Engrenages) and State of Affairs are finishing anyway, so why purge any more?”

Because it’s a good habit to get into, that’s why. Rather than simply watch whatever floats past out eyes, shouldn’t we examining everything, seeing if it’s still worth it, and abandoning anything that really isn’t serving a purpose it might once have? Hence, a purge.

Plus I’m away for a few days next week and there are some new shows starting soon, so I need to claw back a little time.

So dropping off the viewing list this week are the following:

Allegiance (US: NBC)
After the first episode’s cliffhanger ending, we have the most obvious cop-out imaginable that makes super-genius son look a complete idiot. And unless Hope Davis was mumbling for most of last week (possible) or I just wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice it (possible), this week she seems to have acquired the world’s worst Russian accent. No more of this fresh hell for me, thank you.

Better Call Saul (US: AMC; UK: Netflix)
I wasn’t a fan of Breaking Bad, I’m not finding the first few episodes great so far. Maybe I’ll pick it up again later (thanks, Netflix). But right now, it’s not for me.

Fresh Off The Boat (US: ABC)
I was hoping Nahnatchka Khan’s magic was going to be enough to get the show improving over time. But despite a winning performance by Constance Wu, episode three proved to be laugh-free.

Gotham (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)
If it hadn’t been a Batman prequel, I would have dropped it by now. But one good episode isn’t sufficient to maintain my interest and although we actually had the Penguin and the Riddler meet this week, it was yet again a brief flash of interest in an otherwise turgid episode.

Hiding (Australia: ABC)
Each hour-long episode probably has about enough plot and laughs for half an hour. Even then, when the show sets up a glorious opportunity to do something good – our ex-crim turned faux doctoral student in criminal psychology given a chance to lecture on what makes crims tick – it bottles it and tries to save up what morsels of goodness it does have for another episode.

Man Seeking Woman is hanging on a thread, too. But I won’t be giving up just yet.

I also tried two new mini-series this week.

Gallipoli (Australia: Nine)
The Gallipoli campaign of the First World War (its centenary is in April) is a strange affair. Rarely mentioned in the UK except perhaps as an example of yet another thing with which Winston Churchill was involved before the Second World War that he inevitably cocked-up, elsewhere in the world it’s of vital importance. An attempt by the Allies to take Constantinople that stalled in Gallipoli, it was the moment for Australia and New Zealand that they decided that being part of the British Empire wasn’t that great, while for the Turks, it was the spur that eventually led to their later independence under the leadership of Gallipoli hero Mustafa Kemal.

Based on the book of the same name, this nine-part Australian mini-series is effectively Australia’s Band of Brothers, attempting to take a balanced approach to the campaign, with Brits, ANZACs and Turks treated equitably by the producers, as the horrors and inevitabilities of war, coupled with human nature, force everyone into untenable positions that eventually results in untold slaughter.

The first two episodes are light on characterisation, largely sticking to re-enacting the war and focusing on one teenage soldier (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he learns to kill and survive, although there are scenes involving famous figures, including British war reporter Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, here played by Gaius Baltar himself James Callis, and Mustafa Kemal (Yalin Ozucelik), although he’s not yet been identified by name.

It’s a very creditable, often moving piece of work, even having been filmed in Turkey, although the CGI (and some of the accents) are a bit flakey. Worth watching if you have an interest in history, particularly history that’s important to people in the rest of the world, and don’t mind a heavy emphasis on warfare.

The Slap (US: NBC)
A remake of the Australian mini-series of the same name, which in turn was based on the book of the same. A Greek-American family and friends all get together to celebrate the 40th birthday of Peter Sarsgaard. Except midway through the party, cousin Zachary Quinto hits a misbehaving child and all Hell breaks loose.

While this is obviously an attempt by NBC to put on a prestige series about a Very Important Topic, with a Very Important Cast (Uma Thurman, Thandie Newton, Brian Cox), it’s creatively flawed at pretty much every level. Some of that is the fault of the source material – assuming, of course, the original thought a 40-year-old man considering an affair with a teenager was in any way a good idea. But a lot of it’s down to casting. Melissa George, who reprises her role from the original, has minimal to do, but attempts by Sarsgaard, Cox and Quinto to demonstrate their Greekness result in some of the worst Greek yet put on screen, with Cox and Quinto often forced to use the time honoured “mumble, talk in someone’s ear or cover my face with my hand when I’m ‘speaking’ this language. Oh wait, let’s speak English for no good reason!” technique of ensuring that no one can hear them speaking Greek, lest we all find out how bad they are. Unfortunately, we do.

On top of this, we get Sarsgaard grouching about the fact a woman – a Latina, at that! Heavens! – got the job he wanted and the whole thing feels like some sad, middle-aged white man somewhere got a bit upset that he wasn’t allowed to do sh*tty things with impunity any more, and decided to write a bit of wallowing self-pity about what the world’s come to.

Episode two might be better, though.

After the jump, then, I’ll be looking at last week’s episodes of 12 Monkeys, 19-2, The Americans, Arrow, Banshee, The Blacklist, Constantine, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Flash, Forever, Fortitude, Ground Floor, Man Seeking Woman, Marvel’s Agent Carter, Spiral (Engrenages), State of Affairs and Suits.

I also watched a movie.

Valentine’s Day (2010) (iTunes)
Slightly tepid Gary Marshall (Pretty Woman) ensemble movie that attempts to Crash/Love Actually St Valentine’s Day, with various couples getting together and breaking up on Valentine’s Day as their various stories all intersect each other. Jamie Foxx, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Queen Latifah, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba, Shirley Maclaine, Eric Dane and others are among the star-crossed lovers unfortunately trapped in LA, with not a single one of the stories plausible or even especially romantic, with only one or two surprises in the whole thing. The final two couple revelations are almost worth the prize of admission, though.

But last week was Greek week in London. Yes, students at two universities, KCL and UCL, stage a Greek drama or tragedy at this time every year – just for larks, KCL’s is in Ancient Greek with super-titling!

The Clouds (KCL: Greenwood Theatre)
Aristophanes’s comedies are always tricky boys to dramatise, not least because a lot of the humour only works in Ancient Greek, but because attempts to make them funny also tend to fall flat. So it’s to director Oliver Harrington’s credit that he managed to make The Clouds, in which a rustic farmer with debts decides to learn sophistry from Socrates so that he can talk his way out his problems, actually very funny. While some of the cast (and the supertitler…) struggled with the Greek a little, Harrington managed to mix the old and new, acting with singing, crude and sophisticated together in one show and for it all to work. I did get slapped by a phallus midway through, though.

Bacchae (UCL: Bloomsbury Theatre)
UCL have it a little easier, working in English, but The Bacchae was no less memorable, with Emily Louizou’s more timeless production managing to bring out the religious aspects of Euripides’ original play, to give us a truly frightening and charismatic Dionysus (Pavlos Christodoulou), who can bend reality to his will and make mortals do the unthinkable.

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