Great News, the new NBC comedy that premieres tonight, is both a workplace sitcom and a family sitcom. Briga Heelan stars as Katie Wendelson, a 30-year-old news producer for a New Jersey TV station stuck working on fluffy segments like “Halloween costumes for obese pets.” When her overbearing mother, Carol (the wonderful Andrea Martin) drags her to a funeral, the minister’s eulogy inspires Katie to go after her dream of producing substantial stories — and inspires Carol to go after her dream of joining the workforce. She enrolls in school for TV production and promptly gets an internship at Katie’s station.
If it sounds a bit like 30 Rock, well, it is a bit like 30 Rock, and for good reason: Creator Tracey Wigfield won an Emmy for her writing on Tina Fey’s beloved showbiz sitcom. Great News shares 30 Rock’s socially awkward, ambitious-but-single (here, slightly younger) female lead, as well as its through-the-looking-glass perspective on the TV industry. Nicole Richie is surprisingly great as the Jenna Maroney type, a vapid, superficial anchor named Portia Scott-Griffith who was mentored by Roger Ailes and who pitches stories like, “Am I Snapchatting my vacation wrong?” (Yes, that would make Andrea Martin the Tracy Jordan analogue.) John Michael Higgins is perfectly cast as Portia’s counterpart, the veteran newsman Chuck Pierce. Adam Campbell plays Katie’s boss and potential love interest, Greg.
Like 30 Rock and another Tina Fey creation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there are lots of throwaway jokes and recurring gags here, the best of which is that we never really see Katie’s dad/Carol’s husband. An indication of his third-wheel status in the family, he’s perpetually out of focus in the background, or shot from behind, his face always obscured. At one point, Carol claims she left him in the car with the window open; in another episode, she and Katie forget his birthday, an incident that only warrants a brief cutaway to poor Dave Wendelson sitting at the kitchen table with a birthday cake, alone.
The relationship between Carol and Katie is the beating heart of Great News, a dynamic that, appropriately enough, sometimes overwhelms the show’s other elements — just as, appropriately enough, Martin’s pushy, stage-mom character sometimes eclipses her mousier daughter. It’s a funny dynamic, but it also adds a bit too much syrup to some of the episodes, and, at least at first, makes for a slightly weak protagonist in Katie. (Although, like Gilmore Girls, both mother and daughter are often central to any given episode.)
Ultimately, though, it works, because Great News is really about the overlap between personal and professional life — which is what any decent workplace comedy boils down to. The cruel joke at the heart of 30 Rock was that Fey’s Liz Lemon had no real personal life; she lived for her stupid show. Katie lives for the job, too, but the character is less jaded than Liz, and more open to the possibility of a fulfilling, well-rounded life. (I did mention she’s younger, right?)
The difference in personality — Katie’s an unabashed mama’s girl — gives Great News a slightly more wholesome quality than the tart 30 Rock. The fact that Great News bakes a will-they-won’t-they relationship into its core cast at all is an indication of its slightly softer approach. But as she learns over the course of the season to assert herself at work, Katie becomes a stronger character, bolder and funnier and with more personality. “My body is a temple, and by that I mean I let a lot of Jewish guys in,” she declares in one episode, giving herself the old Liz Lemon self-high-five.
Most sitcoms (recently, Superstore comes to mind) take a little time to find their footing and fine-tune the chemistry between cast members, and Great News is no exception. The more we get to know the characters, particularly the supporting cast, the funnier they become, like Beth, the no-nonsense doomsayer meteorologist, played by Wigfield: “Like it says on my tramp stamp,” she declares in one episode, “weather changes.” And, of course, the tension between Greg and Katie slowly builds.
If you’re not feeling it by episode three or four, jump back in around episode seven, when things start heating up a bit and the cast finds its groove. But Great News has enough jokes to float you through some of the earlier, weaker episodes — particularly those lampooning the conventions of TV news. (“Our job isn’t tracking down clues or meeting mysterious sources,” Greg tells Katie. “It’s saying stuff on TV that people already read on the internet.”) By the end of the ten-episode first season, the show won me over. Like any relationship worth pursuing, a sitcom demands commitment.
Great News premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.