Last spring, NBC premiered Great News, a comedy created by former 30 Rock writer Tracey Wigfield and set in the glamorous world of a Jersey-based cable news station. You’d be forgiven if this all is news to you: Last year, the network burned off the first season’s ten episodes two at a time, over the span of a single month. That was a disservice. Great News has a screwball charm and a flair for rapid-fire jokes, built on a premise that amusingly literalizes the classic sitcom concept of co-workers as family: Briga Heelan stars as a plucky producer and Andrea Martin as the overbearing mother who takes an internship at the very station where her daughter works. But its second season, which ends tonight, has kicked the series into a higher gear, energized by a year in which the thought of a responsible, fact-based TV news landscape has itself become a kind of joke.
In its first season, which aired just a few months after the inauguration, Great News’ cable newsroom setting was more of a backdrop for the antics of its ensemble than a focus in itself — the spotlight fell directly on the codependent dynamic between producer Katie Wendelson (Heelan) and her mother, Carol (Martin). That’s still the heart of the show, but this season, the writers have found new ways to transpose real-life TV-news drama into the kind of cartoonish shenanigans (Katie’s IBS figures in more than one storyline) that find a natural home in the sitcom groove. A committed journalist who works in cable news could be yet another kind of joke, but Great News succeeds where other media-skewering shows don’t because it takes seriously its protagonist’s desire to do important work. The fact that Katie rarely gets that chance reflects a system-wide breakdown, not a character flaw.
The second season opened with an office-wide panic: As the live broadcast of The Breakdown is about to start, Carol barges into the control room and announces that China has just launched a missile. Producers scramble, employees call their loved ones, and the newscasters — social media star Portia Scott-Griffith (a truly funny Nicole Richie) and old-timer Chuck Pierce (John Michael Higgins) — obediently read the new copy. But Carol soon realizes she made a mistake. China didn’t launch a missile; Blac Chyna launched a lip-gloss line. “Congratulations everyone,” executive producer Greg (Adam Campbell) announces. “We just made fake news.”
The characters soon learn that what’s bad for America makes great TV. This season features Tina Fey in a guest arc as Diana St.-Tropez, the new head of the network, who informs her employees they’re going to start doing things differently — it’s not enough to have beautiful people read the news from behind a desk anymore. Diana is eager to take advantage of the new media hellscape: “With America on the verge of eating itself alive, people are finally watching cable news again!”
In one standout scene from the second season premiere, Diana tells her underlings that viewers don’t want news — they just want to watch people argue with each other. So the producers assemble a panel that’s straight out of a Fox News fever dream, featuring an “Obama denier and author of the book, Well I Never Met Him”; a “transracial fracking misunderstander” named Sally Rosenberg; a “Wiccan priestess and director of the documentary I Hate the Troops”; a “Kentucky dog groomer who used a religious liberty law to refuse service to a gay dog”; and “Rex, a gay dog.” The segment is a ratings bonanza.
Great News has managed to balance its media critique with the goofy sweetness that characterized it out of the gate. The sitcom doesn’t have 30 Rock’s caustic bite (that show’s creator, Fey, and showrunner, Robert Carlock, are executive producers of Great News). Katie might seem torn from the Liz Lemon playbook — she’s a professionally ambitious woman with a hapless social life. But she’s more upbeat than the gloriously cynical Liz, and she hasn’t totally given up on love: witness the delectable will-they/won’t-they tension between Katie and Greg. (Never change, TV). And the creators are not afraid to get a little mushy, to cap off an episode with a hug and a pointed message. Generational friction is an endless opportunity for lessons learned: In one recent episode, Carol and Chuck are forced to attend “sensitivity training” sessions, and Carol realizes it’s not “P.C. culture” that’s complicated, but rather, “People are complicated.”
One lesson Wigfield seems to have gleaned from her 30 Rock training is that a comedy should have a lot of jokes — preferably filled-to-bursting with cultural references and delivered so fast you need to pause your player. (Blink and you’ll miss the Arrival joke in last week’s episode.) When Portia and Diane are feuding, Portia suggests they sell the rights to Ryan Murphy; late in the second season, Carol works briefly for a talk show called Morning Wined Up starring “Kelly and Mary-Kelly” (Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch) — clear Kathie Lee and Hoda knock-offs with giant glasses of wine glued to their hands. The second season opener had one of the best “but her emails” jokes I’ve heard, courtesy of Carol Wendelson: “Hillary Clinton didn’t win the election because she sent an email to her server at Benihana.” The target of that joke isn’t Clinton; it’s cable news.
Anyway, enjoy tonight’s season finale, because it might be the series’ last laugh. Titled “Early Retirement” (is that some kind of sick joke, NBC?), the episode centers on a tech billionaire threatening to sue The Breakdown out of existence. NBC hasn’t announced a renewal for Great News, and the network didn’t make the finale available for critics to screen ahead of time. The scheduling of this season’s thirteen installments makes me wonder if the network even wanted people to watch them; while the three other sitcoms that air during its Thursday-night “Must See TV” block took a break between early December and January, Great News aired two back-to-back episodes on December 21, another one the following week, and then returned in the New Year to burn off the last four.
It’s especially baffling because, as the country lurches from one headline-sucking crisis to the next, goaded by a president who literally takes his cues from TV news, Great News’s milieu is suddenly more relevant than ever. The show seizes the full madness of the present moment and makes it not only hilarious, but sweetly — almost naively — dorky, like a gung-ho reporter chasing down a lead while the media landscape burns around her. True, it doesn’t attract as many viewers as Superstore, The Good Place, and Will & Grace. But at the risk of sounding like a Fox News pundit, it doesn’t help when the system is rigged against you.
The season finale of Great News airs tonight at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.