This is a spoiler-lite review of the first two episodes of Blunt Talk‘s first season.
In the age of “too much TV,” the new Starz series Blunt Talk admirably gives us an easy out clause in its opening scene. From executive producer Seth MacFarlane and creator/showrunner Jonathan Ames, the show’s set-up has the 75-year-old Patrick Stewart playing Walter Blunt, a drug and sex-addicted Piers Morgan type whose CNN-esque news program, Blunt Talk, is on the brink of cancellation. We meet him drowning his sorrows in a bottomless glass of alcohol at his favorite bar, deflecting a stray compliment from a fan and ignoring advice from the bar’s pianist (Stewart’s old Star Trek pal Brent Spiner) that maybe he’s too drunk to drive home. By the six-minute mark of this extended opening, he has picked up a prostitute, chosen to just go with it upon learning that she’s actually a transsexual and asked to suckle on her hormone-grown natural breasts.
That’s the out clause. If you don’t want to see Patrick Stewart burying his signature bald head in the bare breasts of a prostitute then Blunt Talk isn’t going to be the show for you. You need not be deemed overly prudish to feel that way. There are just some images you might rather not associate with Stewart, the distinguished actor so many of us have grown up with through The Next Generation and X-Men. However, if you keep watching you’ll see that any kind of actual breast suckling is implied, not shown, and of course the cops immediately show up, resulting in a genuinely funny scenario in which Stewart’s character fights off the cops to protect the prostitute and then climbs atop his own Jaguar and bellows out Shakesperian dialogue to the confusion of the circling authorities and TMZ camera people.
As far as hooks go, this isn’t a bad one. It perfectly sets up so many questions. How on Earth is a supposed “trusted newsman” going to live down that kind of embarrassment? Why wouldn’t the network just immediately cancel his show considering its already dwindling ratings? Or is this exactly the kind of controversy which will give his career the shot in the arm it so desperately needed? What is he going to say to the staff that works on his show? Will he even apologize? Is this the “rock bottom” moment in his life which will lead to a season-long journey of trying to become a better person?
However, the only reason you might care about any of that is because Patrick Stewart’s Walter Blunt is an instantly endearing old man. In his drunken state, he chows down on some chocolate candy laced with marijuana and only pulls over his car to the prostitute because she appears to be in a bit of trouble. When she asks if he wants to go out on a date, he smiles as if in the midst of realization and delightedly remarks, “Are you a lady of the night? A courtesan?” It sounds so charming coming from a drunk, old British man. Once they’ve pulled over and she asks him if he knows what a transsexual is, he again delightedly responds, “Oh, yes. I was at the US Open in ’77 when Renee Richards made her debut. I would have never guessed that of you, which I hope you don’t mind me saying.” He seems to treat her with more respect than she’s used to, and once the cops arrive he only turns violent when they mistreat her. From atop his Jaguar, he even calls out to her and apologizes for having gotten her into trouble before defiantly insisting the cops should just go away, Stewart hilariously playing it like a spoiled brat used to getting his own way.
Blunt is clearly the deluded hero of his own story, but just like the three male protagonists played by Ted Danson, Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis on Jonathan Ames beloved HBO series Bored to Death he’s also essentially an overgrown child. It’s not for nothing that we meet him attempting to suckle on breasts and close the series premiere with him literally being read a bedtime story by his man servant Henry (Adrian Scarborough). In-between all that, when the stress gets to be too much for him he has a nonsexual spooning session with his matronly, enabling executive producer (Jackie Weaver), as if the cure for what ails him is always a reassuring mother-figure who will say that everything will be okay.
But I’m not so sure that Blunt Talk, the show, is going to be okay. I’ve watched the first two episodes now, and the only thing this show seems to have going for it is a very game Patrick Stewart doing a live-action version of the type of crass humor he’s been pulling off to hilarious effect as Stan Smith’s appropriately cartoonish boss on Seth MacFarlane’s other long-running animated series, American Dad. In fact, Blunt Talk owes its very existence to Jonathan Ames receiving an email from his agent that Seth MacFarlane was looking for an idea for comedy for Patrick Stewart. While brainstorming ideas, Ames happened to catch an episode of Piers Morgan on CNN, and figured why not do a new Larry Sanders Show with a news show instead of late night talk show, like a funny version of Aaron Sorkin’s characteristically self-serious The Newsroom.
As such, Blunt Talk is a behind-the-scenes media satire, playing up the way the news infotainment industry coddles its own celebrities much in the way film stars have been historically coddled. However, what happens if you don’t really care about the behind-the-scenes happenings of a CNN news program? What appeal does Blunt Talk hold for you then? That appeal is mostly isolated to the lovable, deluded windbag Stewart has produced with Walter Blunt, whose name comes from Stewart’s own old stage name which was itself taken from an obscure Shakespeare character. The rest of the cast does little to nothing of note, although one assumes more character development awaits them in future episodes.
As it stands, there’s Jackie Weaver as the executive producer who always objects to Blunt’s bad ideas before doing everything she can to make him happy, Dolly Wells as the head producer who’s a bit socially awkward and in love with Walter, Timm Sharp as a show writer abusing multiple prescription pills, and Mary Holland and Karan Soni as the junior members of the team who are constantly competing against each other. Plus, Richard Lewis is around as Watler’s ineffective, assigned therapist and Romany Malco (remember him from The 40-Year-Old Virgin?) as the uncaring network head.
And then there’s Adrian Scarborough as Watler’s man-servant Henry, the two having bonded during some traumatic experience during the Falkland Wars, thus establishing a vague backstory we’ll probably hear more about at some point down the line. Ames told THR the Walter-Henry relationship is his stab at a modern Jeeves & Wooster, describing Blunt Talk “a cross between Network and [Jeeves & Wooster creator] P.G. Wodehouse.” If you recall the Jeeves & Wooster TV show with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry then imagine that same basic thing on Blunt Talk just with both Jeeves & Wooster badly addicted to drugs, in this case the nobly intelligent Henry only slightly less addicted than the pompously idiotic Walter.
I gathered that Jeeves & Wooster was the reference point before seeing it confirmed by Ames in interviews, but in practice something about Walter and Henry feels more like a sitcom gimmick than a literary homage. I kept thinking of Seinfeld’s classic fourth season in which the show’s fictional version of Jerry pitched NBC a sitcom idea, “I get into a car accident. The guy that hit me doesn’t have any insurance. So the judge sentences him to be my butler. Sounds like a sitcom, doesn’t it?” In Blunt Talk’s case, British guy saves fellow soldier’s life during war, and to repay the debt that guy serves as the hero’s butler for the rest of their respective lives. It’s a workable idea on its own, but it’s been shoved somewhere it doesn’t belong, mostly stripped of the class commentary central to Jeeves & Wooster’s appeal and pulling focus away from the news industry satire which Blunt Talk seems only tangentially interested in exploring.
Frankly, there are more laughs to be found through Patrick Stewart’s Twitter account than there are in the first two episodes of Blunt Talk. However, Patrick Stewart is still fairly funny on this show. It feels like he is being torn between the incompatible comedic sensibilities of the showrunner (Ames) and producer (MacFarlane). At times, Walter Blunt recalls Ted Danson from Bored to Death. At other times, there are Family Guy-esque cutaway gags, like an extended scene from the movie Trapeze in the pilot and a Busby Berkley musical number that opens the second episode (to be fair, Ames says both of those were his ideas despite feeling very MacFarlane-esque). Nothing quite meshes yet, and while Stewart’s appeal is unwavering the “watch Captain Picard doing very un-Captain Picard-like things” novelty might eventually wear off. If it does, here’s hoping that Blunt Talk’s thus far spare parts can earn their keep.
Blunt Talk’s first two episodes are available to stream for free online right now. Due to my Bored to Death fandom, I will keep watching long enough to see how Jason Schwartzman fares later in the season as a recurring guest star. What about you? What do you think of the show so far? Or have you already decided against watching? Let me know in the comments.
AVClub | “But most of the time, Stewart is on screen, so most of the time, it’s hard to stop watching. His comic instincts are well-honed to the extent that an unwitting viewer would never guess the actor first made his mark in dramatic roles. Of course, Stewart is a known quantity to most of the audience, and maybe the world didn’t need further proof of his genius. Blunt Talk provides it anyway.”
ScreenRant | “Starz has already renewed the Blunt Talk for season 2, so Ames has the luxury of time that is almost unheard of in the ultra-competitive market of “too much TV.” But time can also be a double-edged sword, as a lack of exigency may lead to unnecessary digressions into the show’s vainglorious perspective (as evidenced by the premier’s title: ‘I Seem to be Running Out of Dreams for Myself), when finding a concrete focus is of more paramount concern.”