Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Pilot Review: Blunt Talk

Blunt Talk (Saturdays at 9:00 on Starz; Premieres August 22)

Patrick Stewart is one of the world's greatest living actors. His breadth of work, from fan favorites like Star Trek and X-Men to his prolific stage career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and beyond, is stunning. But for a guy known primarily (almost solely) for his dramatic work, the "funny side" of Patrick Stewart has been coming out for the past decade or so, thanks to some hilarious, off-kilter voicework on American Dad! and Family Guy, and his voiceover narration for Ted and Ted 2. Stewart teams up with Seth MacFarlane, the guy who's brought the funny out of him in the recent past, for Blunt Talk, a sometimes-tedious, totally weird media satire.

The whole premise of Blunt Talk is built around the audience finding it funny that a put-together Brit with a Shakespearean background like Patrick Stewart is in a show that sees him playing a drunk and disorderly, stoned, sexually ambiguous cable talk show host. For those of us who've been watching (or, rather, listening to) his performance on American Dad! Stewart's ability to play comedy isn't a surprising novelty. And after hearing his voice come out of Avery Bullock, a character who's killed prostitutes, dated girls who could be his granddaughters, and a myriad other ridiculous things, seeing the actual Stewart snorting coke or drunkenly reciting Hamlet from the roof of his Jaguar is just a bit underwhelming. It's not shocking to me, so there's not much particularly funny about it.

The set-up of Blunt Talk is only slightly amusing on its own merits. Stewart is Walter Blunt, a British war hero who came to Los Angeles to take over late-night cable news, but whose show's ratings are plummeting and who has just confirmed his fifth divorce (with a woman half his age). After drinking too much and ingesting pot-infused chocolate, Walter takes a ride with a 21-year old trans prostitute (played by trans* actress Trace Lysette of Transparent) and ends up being pursued by police and paparazzi before climbing atop his car and delivering a stirring but inopportune Shakespearean monologue. The next day, his show's producing team (led by Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook) warn him that his program will likely never air again, since everyone from Anderson Cooper to Bill O'Reilly has a negative opinion of his back-alley antics. He manages to get one last broadcast, however, under the condition that he see a therapist (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Richard Lewis).

The opening sequences of Stewart shading one of his fans; driving drunk and stoned through LA while rapping; and stealing a policeman's nightstick before kneeing him in the crotch and going on a "chase" around his car are all cute and fun. But the rest of the show doesn't live up to the manic weirdness of that opening. The scenes of Walter and his production team sitting around a conference table discussing the show's future are all duds. Jacki Weaver is all big eyes without a single truly humorous moment in the pilot (the closest she gets is offering to spoon her boss to calm his nerves, which he happily accepts). Richard Lewis is similarly wasted.

The closest the show comes to fully embracing its bizarre, amusing satirical tone is when Walter Blunt interviews himself in an exclusive on his arrest. The question-asking Walter is filmed early on, while the question-answering Walter is live on the air. What's absurd is that asking Walter was on a ton of Ambien while answering Walter is flying on a mixture of cocaine and speed to counteract that Ambien. It's insane and ludicrous and the kind of offbeat that I think creator Jonathan Ames (HBO's Bored to Death) and executive producer Seth MacFarlane were going for. Once the supporting characters get fleshed out, and once the scripts are forced to rely more on actual comedy than on the shock of Professor X behaving badly, Blunt Talk should improve. The pilot is uneven and terribly paced, but moments like the one I just described hint at a better show hiding in there somewhere. Stewart looks like he's having a lot of fun, so hopefully the show will soon live up to his performance.

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