(Photo: Bill Inoshita/NBC)

Though NBC previously said that “Pool Show” was the last Great News episode of the year, the network decided to fill its holiday schedule with not one, but two episodes of the show this week. The first episode, “A Christmas Carol Wendelson,” is their official holiday episode, with all the gags and hallmarks of the season. The second, “Sensitivity Training,” is just another funny episode of the series, featuring jabs at anti-PC critics and a sexy all-night work session scored to The Weeknd’s “Earned It” (the lead single from the Fifty Shades Of Grey film). Though both episodes operate in different registers, they represent the series at its wacky, warm-hearted best. Let’s dive right in.

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“A Christmas Carol Wendelson” (Grade: A)

“Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion,” said Umberto Eco in his essay on Casablanca. Though I wouldn’t necessarily say that “A Christmas Carol Wendelson” is moving in the sense that Eco means, the same principle basically applies to this holiday episode that features upwards of three riffs on classic Christmas-esque plots. First, there’s the Christmas Carol riff where Carol learns to chill out about her overbearing, stress-inducing Christmas spirit. Second, Chuck reunites with his estranged dirtbag son Petey (Will Sasso). Finally, Katie and the rest of the Breakdown team rediscover their Christmas spirit…only for it to be modified by Carol’s own “Fuck it”-inspired change of heart.

In other words, it’s like a Christmas episode grab bag. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that “A Christmas Carol Wendelson” is at least a little overstuffed, but I think credited writer Amy Hubbs maneuvers between the three plots very well. It’s an especially nice touch to center the episode on Katie’s own indifference to the Christmas season due to her mother’s hectoring perfectionism. All Katie wants to do is relax and not feel bogged down by the self-imposed impossibly high expectations of the season. She almost gets an out after the Breakdown team has to work on Christmas day, but Carol brings her obsessive nature to the office, so she then retreats into Chuck’s own familial mania, only for that to remind her of her own selfishness. It’s structurally airtight plotting, and that only amplifies the one-liners and gags on Great News.

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Though Carol’s realization about her own borderline-abusive holiday planning was an especially nice touch at the end of the episode, which prompts the entire news team to cathartically destroy Christmas decorations to relieve their stress, it’s the Chuck plotline that actually ends up being the most poignant. Though Chuck appears to want nothing to do with Petey, whom he initially implies is a small child rather than a fully-grown adult and later claims to have only seen 30 times since he’s born, he’s demonstrably proud of his son in private. He proudly shows mementos of Petey’s life to Katie, including a courtroom sketch from his public urination trial (he was acquitted). Chuck initially doesn’t want to articulate his love for his son, but after an on-air product placement for Petey’s Dude Wine (“Recently approved by the FDA: The Fred Durst Association!”) and an on-set argument, the two are crying and hugging each other in front of everybody (even if they’re couching it in some kind of father-son duel).

Decades of workplace sitcoms might have rendered the “surrogate family” concept a trite cliché, but given the right ensemble and an appropriate spin, there’s still plenty of juice in that idea. Take the scene when everybody realizes Carol had bought the entire news team presents, each more specific and thoughtful than the last. It even moves the curmudgeonly Greg, who looks at his Workplace Family photo book and mutters, through tears, “I hurted Mumsie.” But Great News injects just the right amount of holiday cynicism: Carol gleefully tearing down inflatable candy canes and demanding everyone help her ruin the superficial trappings of Christmas. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Ghost of Christmas Future (actually Angie in disguise) painted a portrait of a hypothetical warm-weather Christmas spent at Katie’s in laws. Once Carol learned that Katie’s kids were calling her “Nana,” it was all over.

“Sensitivity Training” (Grade: A-)

There are two core plots in “Sensitivity Training”: First, Carol has to attend sensitivity training after accidentally insulting an Asian co-worker. When she fails the workshop quiz, Chuck, a mainstay at sensitivity training, convinces her that it’s the PC culture that’s to blame, causing the two of them to briefly wreak faux-harassment havoc in the office. Second, Katie has trouble finding time to connect with Jeremy (Reid Scott), her journalist boyfriend, after learning they’re both full-blown workaholics. The former is a little didactic and the latter is a little underwhelming, but both are funny enough to justify the bumps in the road.

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It helps that credited writer Dan Klein adopts the appropriate tone for the sensitivity training story. It would be way too easy for Great News to “both sides” the issue, essentially saying that Chuck and Carol’s workplace faux pas might be wrong but that everyone should also lighten up. Instead, “Sensitivity Training” rightfully paints their actions as not just incontrovertibly wrong, but also frustratingly old hat. When Chuck and Carol send the entire Breakdown team to sensitivity training for “workplace harassment,” which essentially amounts to snotty, inflated accusations of “being triggered,” Greg puts them both in their place when they start complaining about PC culture.

“That might have been a ‘cool take’ a few years ago, but this is 2017. The President just asked Congress to fund something called Bitch Jail. There are literal Nazis in the street. We had one on the show last night! You two are by far the oldest people in the office. Stop acting like babies.”

Then, the story follows Chuck and Carol as they slowly learn the error of their ways. Carol actually listens to the obstacles her co-workers have had to face: Wayne is a black man and was raised by two fathers, Gene grew up Jewish in Alaska (“It was so cold there. And I’m afraid of bears!”), and Greg’s British accent opens himself up to intelligence profiling (people think he knows what he’s talking about, but he only has an eighth grade education, which equals an American undergraduate education). “It’s not this PC stuff that is complicated. People are complicated!” Carol declares, and the moment feels earned.

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Naturally, Chuck needs a few more lessons about how not to be an insensitive jerk. He tries to teach the staff how to take a joke by setting up a comedy roast at his expense, only for him to be hurt by all the jokes the staff tells. Chuck learns the obvious lesson that’s slapping him in the face, and he promises to try and work on it. Again, it’s a little didactic, but its heart is in the right place, and at least in this instance, that’s more than enough.

There’s not much to say about the Katie-Jeremy plot, other than it continues the 30 Rock tradition of introducing seemingly perfect romantic partners only to amplify a personality flaw so as to justify their exit. In this case, Jeremy is a workaholic who treats Katie like a “side piece” next to his job. Though Katie does her best to get Jeremy to make time for her, she soon realizes that she’s as bad of a workaholic as he is when she blows off a dinner date to finish an expose on Smug Meadow Farms, a vegan health food brand that uses Bonobo chimpanzee meat. They soon realize they’re not compatible and call it off, opening up the eventual Katie-Greg pairing that will be coming down the pipeline. It’s nothing special, but it does contain the single funniest sight gag in both episodes: Greg’s makeshift refrigerator, which is an old fan blowing on a stack of American cheese. At the end of the day, one can rely on Great News for those kinds of jokes.

Stray observations

  • Apparently, NBC will air another episode of Great News next week. So tune in then!
  • Carol’s gifts for the staff: A Weight Watchers-approved Chilean cook book for Justin, a box set of Call the Midwife for Wayne, a picture of her nemesis Karlie Kloss straining on a toilet for Portia, a paternity test identifying the father of her child for Beth (it was her husband), a work family photo book for Greg, and a wrinkle-free shirt for Gene.
  • The two most specific jokes of the evening: Teenage Katie rebelling by going to the mall and picking up a guy at Afterthoughts (they both reached for the same magnetic nose ring), and Katie having upstairs neighbors that practice Santería.
  • The three reasons men send flowers, according to Portia: 1. Anniversary; 2. Valentines day; 3. Got Amber Rose pregnant
  • In the reality of Great News, Al Franken is still a Senator and President Trump has named Chester Cheetah the head of the FDA.
  • The most depressingly accurate joke of the evening: Jeremy is in print, so he only makes $7,000 a year.
  • “Listen if he tries to bite you, just shake a jar of change at him. He’s my bundle of joy.”
  • “This water filtration system won first place at the high school science fair. Petey stole it from the nerd who made it and turned it into an amazing bong!”
  • “My dad never said that stuff to me and look how successful and angry and divorced I turned out to be!”
  • “What, Greg? Christmas isn’t all fresh white snow in the morning. Sometimes it’s old gray sludge in the gutter.”
  • “I’m not an elf. Just because I baked cookies in a tree one time!”
  • “It’s bad to call someone sissy now. That was my mother’s name!”
  • “I went to a black church and I didn’t even notice until I realized I was having fun!”
  • “Dude! I don’t identify as a cowboy! I need a safe space!”
  • “When I dated Steve Harvey, the only way that I could see him was by posing as a 7-year-old break dancer on Little Big Shots.”
  • “The meat is bonobo! That’s as close as you can get to people! They use tools and they have sex for pleasure!”
  • “These aren’t jokes, like an Asian man slipping on a banana peel. They’re hurtful, like a white man slipping on a banana peel!”

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