Patrick Stewart displays his preternatural prowess for absurdist comedy, and producer Lorne Michaels proves he can be as innovative today as he was when he developed Saturday Night Live, in two brilliant new comedies.
Strange, off-the-wall, and even slightly mad, Blunt Talk, featuring Stewart as a cable-news host with a penchant for self-destruction, premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday on Starz, and IFC's Documentary Now!, a more uneven anthology series that presents a new mockumentary per week kicks off at 10 p.m. Thursday.
An emotional roller coaster
nolead ends A fast-moving take on the cable-news industry that has the take-no-prisoners brawn of a Paddy Chayefsky satire, Blunt Talk stars Stewart as Walter Blunt, an overeducated and ridiculously polite Piers Morgan-ian newsman whose show dispenses unvarnished truth on difficult issues. A downright surreal comedy that's filled with allusions to everyone from Kierkegaard to porn stars, it's the brainchild of author Jonathan Ames (Wake Up Sir!), who created HBO's comedy-noir Bored to Death.
If there ever was a manic-depressive in Hollywood, it's Walter, whose talent for self-destruction almost outstrips his facility for quoting the Bard and analyzing the environmental crisis. A former officer in the Royal Marines who fought in the Falklands War, Walter is followed everywhere by his valet, Harry (Adrian Scarborough), who feeds him whiskey like it's water.
Walter is in a serious slump in the series opener. His show, Blunt Talk, may be canceled due to low ratings. He's approached at a traffic stop by a transsexual hooker who offers him "a date." Excited, Walter belts out, "Are you a lady of the night! A courtesan!"
Walter, who has already burned his way through four miserable marriages, just wants a bit of cuddly comfort.
Next thing he knows, Walter is on the roof of his car surrounded by 10 cops with guns drawn. Seems he attacked a pair of officers who tried to break up his little assignation with Gisele.
Walter tries to defuse the scandal by offering to have himself cross-examined on camera by the toughest newsman he knows, Walter Blunt. The resulting self-interview is a schizoid delight.
Blunt Talk is catapulted by Stewart's magnificent energy, but it's hardly a one-man show. The star is backed by a terrific ensemble cast, including Jacki Weaver, Dolly Wells, Karan Soni, and Mary Holland. Each episode also takes time to explore the lives of each of the secondary characters. (Watch out for veteran comic Richard Lewis as Walter's cocaine-dispensing Freudian analyst.)
Blunt Talk puts to shame the blandly bawdy and brainless assembly-line manufactured fare that passes for sitcoms today.
The cinematic truth
Created by a trio of Saturday Night Live alums - Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers and co-executive-produced by SNL creator Michaels - IFC's Documentary Now! is a mockdoc showcase hosted by (the real) Helen Mirren.
The 20-minute films target classic docs, including Nanook of the North, HBO's Vice news program, and Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. Each film caters to different comedic sensibilities and makes for an uneven collection. The pilot features a Grey Gardens-ish film about an aged former socialite, played by Armisen, and her 57-year-old daughter (Hader) who live in a filthy, rat-infested mansion in the middle of nowhere. The filmmakers show up after hearing rumors that several men have gone missing in the area. It's a droll but flat affair.
The Vice mockumentary, running next week, is one of the better offerings. Titled "Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon," it stars Jack Black as the booze-gulping founder of immersive news program Dronez. Hader and Armisen again costar as a pair of know-nothing reporters who don't speak a word of Spanish but who are sent to Juarez to track down a notorious cartel boss. Their observations on the squalid living conditions in Mexico are priceless: "Look, it's a first-generation PlayStation," they remark with pity while visiting a local family.
Documentary Now! may not match the genius that possesses Blunt Talk and its stars, but it's still one of the best laughers on cable.
Premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on IFC.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday on Starz.