“Great News” may be the only sitcom on television to prominently feature admiration for Chico’s — yes, Chico’s, the mid-market mall staple aimed at slightly kooky older women. Carol (Andrea Martin), Katie (Briga Heelan)’s mother, is an avid connoisseur of Chico’s fashions. She also has a walking club and four closets full of quilts; she admires Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who she calls in her head “Old Christine.” She has a friend named Angie and another named Other Carol, and you’ll never believe what happened for Other Carol’s birthday: Two of her friends got her the exact same top from Chico’s, in two different colors. (We are informed that she’s going to keep them both.)
“Great News,” a slightly too zany workplace comedy where Carol comes to work with Katie as a senior-citizen intern, would be less effective if it weren’t for the affection with which creator Tracey Wigfield renders the details of Carol’s life. Wigfield based Carol’s relationship with Katie on her own relationship with her mother, and the affection she has for Carol is the best element of the sitcom, evident in how generous the portrayal of Martin’s character is. Carol is a lifelong mom and housewife who would settle into retirement but for a continuing drive to do more in the world, and her pursuit of continuing education encourages her to “use her connections” to end up at her daughter’s workplace. Katie’s embarrassed by her too-much mother, but at the foundationally dysfunctional local news program in Secaucus where she works, too-much is kind of the standard.
Once Carol starts working at “The Breakdown” with Katie, her unique role as a a mom-intern becomes less central to the show than the funny and convoluted work dynamics of the stacked (and nearly overcrowded) ensemble cast. Martin pings nicely off of lead anchor Chuck (John Michael Higgins, who practically steals the show) and finds surprising common ground with ultra-hip co-anchor Portia (Nicole Richie, in a turn that reveals her substantial comedic talents). Naturally, Katie is horrified to discover her mother might be fitting into her workplace better than she does, but that is part of the fun of it.
But the sitcom struggles a bit when it comes to portraying Katie, the put-upon daughter stuck in a bit of extended adolescent arrested development. Carol and Katie are intimately codependent, and as a result, Katie is a frustrating protagonist — stuck in second gear despite being in her 30s. The flaws of “Great News” all center around Heelan’s performance — not because it’s bad, but because it feels like the element of the show that projects the least confidence. There’s something a little tiresome about a female protagonist who appears to be waiting around for someone to come and fix her life, and though undoubtedly Katie’s role will expand over the season’s 10 episodes, it means that she’s the least interesting element of the first few installments.
Executive producer Tina Fey has provided us with all kinds of comediennes to root for — and indeed Martin as Carol projects a kind of no-nonsense feminine warmth that reads a little bit like Liz Lemon, 25 years later. But compared to Lemon or Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), Katie’s character is much harder to locate and define. This vagueness is what sets “Great News” apart, too: Where “30 Rock” was arch and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” continues to be dark, “Great News” is just kind of fuzzy. This is reflected, technically, in the editing, which is never quite crisp enough to frame a punchline properly. There’s a bit of a multi-camera soul to “Great News” — the set and the substance feel a little dated, and the show leans into that ‘80s aesthetic with a bit of nostalgia that is both disorienting and a little comforting (much like going back to visit your parents’ house after moving out).
That being said, once the show settles into its rhythms, there’s a lot of humor to go around. Higgins is a comedic treasure — Chuck bonds with Carol because both (he feels) are on the verge of obsolescence, and he plays up doddering frustration with grandstanding that is so patently empty it’s hilarious. Richie, as Portia, takes on the Jenna Moroney role with unique verve — how many reality-show vets could say the phrase “my mentor, Roger Ailes” with such droll delivery? In one of the show’s funniest moments, Portia and Chuck bond over loving lemonade — except where he is talking about the drink, she is talking about the album by Beyoncé. Fortunately, both are so self-involved that no one is the wiser.
“Great News” is a bit more dated than other shows that Fey has toplined — but it improves as it goes on. It’s a departure from “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though; among other things, “Great News” has that ‘90s sensibility of being set in New York but not really filmed in New York, which is jarring considering how well Fey’s other shows use the cityscape. (A fake stone sign reading “CENTRAL PARK” is so hilariously artificial that in that moment we were all sent back in time to the pilot episode of “Friends.”) But it has a warm, big ensemble, which begins to feel like a big weird family as the season goes on. In the long view, that’s probably exactly what “Great News” is hoping for.