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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great News takes advantage of its 30 Rock similarities and does something neat with them

Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC
Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC
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It’s not an insult to call Great News sort of a B-squad 30 Rock; it may not even be particularly reductive. I can’t imagine that Tracey Wigfield, Tina Fey, or Robert Carlock would blanche at a comparison between the two shows, which both follow the exploits of smart but sometimes flailing single female media employees surrounded by characters noticeably weirder and more eccentric than they are (while also reveling in the leads’ own barely-hidden eccentricities beneath their exasperated straight-woman veneers). So far the second season of Great News has seemed unashamed to chase that sweet 30 Rock high, with Fey herself even making an appearance as a vaguely Jack Donaghy-like mentor for Briga Heelan’s Katie.

But as much as I love Tina Fey popping up in a supporting role (I need my 30 Rock methadone, you guys, and I burn through Kimmy Schmidt so fast), I’m vaguely relieved that the show can take its 30 Rock-ness down half a notch as Diana St. Tropez takes her (presumably temporary) leave from The Breakdown. “Awards Show” leans into the 30 Rock resemblance another way, sending the crew to the American Journalism Awards, where The Breakdown has been nominated for Best Late Afternoon/Early Evening News Program, and Katie’s phone-hacking piece has been nominated for its own investigative journalism award. 30 Rock already toyed with showbiz margins by making TGS explicitly bumbling and perpetually on the bubble, but The Breakdown clearly inhabits even more of a subculture than a late-night sketch comedy program. This is a scrappier, less glamorous line of work.

In that way, Great News takes advantage of its similarities to another show and does something neat with it; though the idea of a news producer’s mother working as an open-ended intern is wonderfully odd (it almost sounds like the premise of a show one of Fey’s previous gigs would lampoon), Great News is also more of a traditional office show than 30 Rock. Even Beth, one of the most aggressively strange characters in the ensemble (played with great flair by Wigfield herself, who must be pregnant IRL, right, to inflict Beth upon a fictional baby?), feels like part of the team when The Breakdown attends the awards, and stews over the fact that Chuck immediately bails on them for a seat at the cool kids’ table.

In this case, the cool kids look an awful lot like retirement-age men, led by Shooter McGravin himself—Christopher McDonald playing lifetime-achievement recipient Len Archer. Len is proud to never have sold out his values, prouder to look down his nose at Chuck, and secretly ashamed of his actual news gig at YouTube Red, where he reads the news in between a group of teens pranking him. I’m sure it’ll strike some as sour grapes for a network sitcom with middling ratings to make fun of YouTube Red, but I’ve long been surprised how in a post-streaming world, everything I’ve ever seen advertised as YouTube Red programming seems incredibly low-rent, given YouTube’s user base of Basically The Entire World. But at this point I’d be less surprised to see an intriguing-looking series appearing on Crackle.

I’m Jesse, by the way—I’m filling in for the fantastic Vikram for one week only, filling this space with my Crackle-bashing and YouTube befuddlement. The real A-story on this episode of Great News, though, has nothing to do with streaming platforms that confuse and frighten me while validating the compromises that have kept Chuck on the air. Primarily, it’s another episode where Katie is embarrassed of her mom, then embarrassed to have been so embarrassed and forgetting that caricatured behavior or not, Carol is a real person (something Andrea Martin is just as good at playing as the cartoony stuff). Flashing back to one childhood trauma on Star Search and listing several others (many of which are simply labeled “mall”), Katie thinks that Carol will Kanye West her if she loses the awards, storming the stage on her behalf. Then again, it doesn’t really make sense to call this Kanye-ing when it’s revealed that Carol did it to a teenage Kanye first on Star Search, after a young Katie had “one of the best raps of all time.”

The Kanye runner is a little stale and a little predictable—yes, of course it will flip to Katie Kanye-ing on Carol’s behalf at the end—but maybe appropriate to Great News, which so clearly trades in momography that the most cutting-edge cultural references are perhaps not really the point. Carol, who procured (which is to say paid for) a seat-filler position when Katie claimed she couldn’t bring her as a plus-one, is actually excited for the group awards—the one she feels a part of, rather than basking in her daughter’s reflected glory (or inglorious defeat). “What a funny miscommunication!” Portia lampshades when Katie realizes her mistake.


So yeah, this isn’t an especially original turn for this series, and the series seems to know it. But it feels nicely back-to-basics after several Diana-centric outings (I realize the folly of describing the 14th overall episode of a series as “back to basics,” but look, shows don’t really sweat out 25 episodes per year anymore). It would be nice, though, after so many semi-rehashed episodes like this one, to see a less one-sided version of the Katie/Carol dynamic. In the pilot episode and some other early moments, Katie and Carol are portrayed as, to some degree, codependent, and those scenes didn’t feel like artificial sitcom niceness that had to be phased out after the pilot. They had a ring of truth. Later episodes have focused on Carol as a smothering force that Katie tries to wriggle out from underneath at inopportune moments. It’s funny, but familiar in that network-comedy way.

Then again, Heelan plays these familiar notes too well, and with too much energy, for it to be a real problem. She’s a master of expressing both elation and panic, sometimes within moments of each other. Everyone went into this show pretty much knowing that Andrea Martin and John Michael Higgins could be hilarious; maybe even some people detected a mischievous note of self-deprecation in Nicole Richie (can’t say that I did, but it’s been nice to find her so funny so far). But Heelan is a real find—I’d really only seen her in a very different role on Love—and puts her own spin on Liz Lemon-ish utterances, like her horrified exclamation of “It Follows!” when Carol photo-bombs a group picture.


But Heelan’s skill set is also why I could go for some episodes where Carol and Katie team up in some capacity—she can do the oversharing daughter bit just as well, and Wigfield’s Great News is ultimately a warmer, less caustic (and less New York-y) show than some of the other Fey-Carlock productions. In a lot of ways, this is a fascinating hybrid of a show—a high-concept and sometimes repetitive network-friendly hook delivered in the fast-paced style that helped kill more stereotypically mom-and-dad-friendly sitcoms (at least on non-CBS networks). Is this a mainstream success, a creative triumph, a slept-on gem, a missed opportunity and/or a perpetual bubble show? In this world of YouTube Red, Crackle, and TV news delivered on the Chiller network, who knows?

Stray observations:

  • A wonderfully tortured-yet-cruel hiss from the seat-filling captain, seemingly threatening Carol with the actual death penalty: “The only seat you’ll be filling is the electric seat!”
  • The winner of Katie’s category suffers from “slow bones disease.”
  • Did I say Katie? I meant Cody Winkelbink.
  • Some of The Breakdown’s worst interviewees: Antoni Scalia well after he died, and a rat masquerading as Pizza Rat’s dad.
  • I quietly stopped watching Veep last season, but it’s still hard for me to see Reid Scott as a guy who’s merely snarkily full of himself, rather than a full-blown Dan Egan. But Great News is clearly teeing him up as some kind of love interest for Katie. Handsome, but untrustworthy!
  • In other guest-star news: It feels a little basic of me to refer to Christopher McDonald as Shooter McGavin when I could call him the dad from SLC Punk! or Tappy Tibbons from Requiem For A Dream or even Travis Cole from Dirty Work. But Shooter McGavin is such a great goddamn character name. Damn you, Sandler and Herlihy!
  • And in guest-reviewer news: Vikram will be back next week, gang! Thanks for having me!

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!