With no renewal from NBC in sight, “Early Retirement” might just represent the last gasp of Great News. Thus, it should come as no major surprise that the episode has some “series finale” qualities to it, like sentimental tributes to certain characters, as well as a happy ending. But while some shows hit the gas with the saccharine material when they see the light at the end of the tunnel, Great News shows some restraint on that front, limiting it to a few key moments and spending the rest of the episode focused on the elaborately absurd plot involving the lawsuit brought upon the network by deranged billionaire Fenton Pelt (Oscar-winner Jim Rash). The result is a positive episode that rarely feels cloying, and that’s definitely newsworthy.
After weeks of The Breakdown team forced to ignore real news in favor of uncontroversial fluff pieces, Diana St. Tropez (Tina Fey, once again reprising her role via Skype) announces that Fenton Pelt will drop the lawsuit if Chuck goes on air and reads an embarrassing admission of guilt and then retires forever. Though Katie still wants to follow her lead on Anthony Lyon, Fenton’s former business partner, Diana wants The Breakdown to take the easy way out, meaning sacrificing Chuck’s dignity and personhood for the sake of the network.
Chuck is all ready to end his career in a most humiliating fashion because, well, he’s a shell of his former self. Without The Breakdown, he’s another old has-been that nobody remembers. He spends his days sitting on benches, looking out windows, and visiting apple orchards when it’s not apple season (“I thought the trees might enjoy some attention in the other parts of the year,” he says without registering the sadness). He can’t even remember why he became a journalist in the first place. Chuck has all but given up hope on a second chance at the desk.
Katie, meanwhile, has other ideas. She’s still trying to crack the Anthony Lyon lead, but just then Greg reveals that Cat, his fiancée whom he earlier admits that he wants to leave for Katie, left him for a rich old man named Mr. Alistair Mistoffelees (no relation to the Cats character). While Katie wants to be delighted by the news, she still feels like something’s off, mostly because Greg never made any romantic overture whatsoever and simply waited for everything to work out.
Though Greg’s self-satisfied delivery of, “Just imagine if I actually had to break up with her! How uncomfortable!” is pretty shitty, and his condescending explanation of the cultural differences between American and British romance does him no favors, this non-obstacle might be the single weakest part of the episode. Credited writers Tracey Wigfield and Hayes Davenport do their due diligence to justify Katie’s behavior (she wants Greg to choose her, not pick her by default, and that’s not picky, says her mother Carol), but it still can’t help but feel like a needless hurdle put into place to set up the episode’s final moment. There’s nothing wrong with the set-up per se, but you can still see the seams to a distracting degree.
But Katie doesn’t have a whole lot of time to focus on Greg when she realizes that Carol knows everyone in New Jersey, and can lead her to Anthony in time. The two interview folks across the Garden State, including a deli man, a nun, Carol’s friend Angie, and Ray Liotta himself, who gives up the final clue. They eventually land at Anthony’s doorstep, but he won’t talk to Katie because he refuses to talk to reporters. It’s up to Carol, who’s no longer employed by The Breakdown, to seal the deal. Yet, she can’t work up the confidence.
The scene when Katie pumps up Carol could have been too much, but Wigfield and Davenport play it as casually as possible while still injecting the moment with the appropriate uplift. Katie’s realization that her mom doesn’t have anyone to cheer her on has genuine juice, and yet the moment when Carol inspires herself really seals it. She extends her own optimism to herself: “There’s a voice in your head that keeps telling you you’re a failure and you shouldn’t even try. Do not listen to that voice. You listen to mine.”
While Katie and Carol save the day, Portia snaps Chuck out of his self-pitying slump first by showing him a clause in his weird contract that says his final broadcast allows him to “say his piece,” and by smashing all of his awards. So Chuck stalls the best he could, first by listing all of the names of people who didn’t believe in him, and then by talking about topics the rest of the news team studiously avoided so they wouldn’t listen to him rant, like how sandwiches are weird (“Sliced pear on a sandwich! For what reason?!”). But when it seems like he’s run out of stuff to talk about, he begins by thanking The Breakdown team for helping him every single night, leaving the sweetest note of gratitude for Portia, whom he says was the reason why he stayed in news.
Of course, Katie and Carol bring Anthony (Oscar-winner Nat Faxon, Jim Rash’s writing partner) to the set just in the nick of time, right before Fenton was going to force the local police to murder everyone in the studio. Anthony goes on air and explains that his former business partner Fenton pretended to be his biological father, stole his kidney and threw it in a lake, forced him to sign over all of their patents under threat of being shot, and then shot him anyway. The whole subplot not so subtly winks at the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent fallout: Carol convincing Anthony to “be brave and come forward,” the crack about his expired NDA, and the reveal that Fenton has fled to “Everything Rehab” in the “Super Bahamas” following the monstrous revelations. Wigfield and Davenport don’t lay it on too thick, but include enough jabs to get their point across.
In the end, Chuck gets to remain on the air (though his voice is shot after rambling for seven hours) and Diana hires Carol as a staffer on The Breakdown because some superior threatened to quit if she didn’t. Katie realizes that it was Greg (duh) and they share a passionate kiss while everyone celebrates. Oh, and Beth gave birth in the stairwell, and where the hell was everybody for that?
If this is the last episode of Great News (it might not be, who knows?), then it will have gone out on a high note. It will be remembered by the relative few who watched it for its high degree of absurdism, its commitment to gags, and its stellar performances. Though it owes obvious debts to 30 Rock, it eventually left its shadow and became its own show with a separate identity. It’s my hope that more folks will discover this show down the road and curse NBC for airing a major chunk of the season during the holidays when no one would watch it. If Great News is indeed forced into early retirement, then it’s up to everyone who watched it to keep its memory alive. In the words of the man who once gave Chuck a $25 gift card to Coconuts, that’s the way it is.
- Fenton Pelt’s pre-written statement for Chuck includes such jabs like, “I’m more trash than man” and “If you ever see me on the street, please tell me I suck and mush gum in my hair.”
- Apparently in the Great News universe, Nazis have opened up a restaurant in Times Square, which is only a slight exaggeration of our own reality.
- A bit that’s just a straight depiction of our reality: Katie shows Fenton that every cable news show is reporting on his misdeeds, except for Hannity who’s running a story about how Hillary Clinton gave a waiter a weird look.
- Greg’s go-to reference for British romance is the film The Duchess’ Mule, in which Lord Hestershire gets the governess Nancy’s uncle released from debtor’s prison. She thanks him silently while he responds, “One does what one can!”
- List of movies that feature a “one last job before retirement” conceit: Ocean’s 11, Carlito’s Way, True Grit, The Perfect Storm, Heat, and an Eggo commercial.
- Other topics The Breakdown team avoids around Chuck: Today’s music, people that are more famous than he is, discrimination against the small-footed male.
- Chuck’s awards include a News Emmy for Clunkiest Segue and a Kids Choice Award for Oldest Person.
- Attendees at Fenton Pelt’s party include Martin Shkreli, the eviler Koch brother, and Fenton’s clone.
- Three small bits I greatly enjoy: 1. Chuck wearing a “Life’s a Beach” t-shirt when he’s depressed. 2. The use of “Speedo” by The Cadillacs in the New Jersey montage, a nice nod to Ray Liotta and the Goodfellas scene that employs it. 3. An out-of-focus Beth in the background of a scene reacting to a contraction and then shrugging it off.
- “You know what, this feels like Groundhog Day. That’s what I call the day my school took a field trip to a slaughterhouse and I saw a hog get ground up. It was kind of a bad day.”
- “I requested that after Brokaw’s last show. He never got a chance to say how he really felt, that the Greatest Generation was actually kind of stupid and racist.”
- “Honestly, Carol, it wasn’t my idea. You steal from petty cash and your entire jacket is tucked into your underwear right now.”
- “I love to tattle! That’s why I got into news: because journalists are the greatest tattle tales of them all!
- That’s all for now, folks! Thanks for reading and watching. I’ll either see you next season or somewhere down the road.