Blunt Talk creator/showrunner/writer, author, and Novel-T Second Baseman Jonathan Ames knows when to follow his own recommendations. He advises, "[I]f there’s a style of someone that you like, if something appeals to you, you should try to write in that style...You should write what excites you, but put it through your own spirit." Such wisdom enables Ames to channel Network, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's brilliant media satire, into the first two episodes of the new Starz series without compromising his own comic voice.
The show follows Patrick Stewart’s Walter Blunt, an aging newsman plagued by plummeting ratings. He's Network's Howard Beale by way of Piers Morgan. Blunt, like his film counterpart, eventually makes an on-air proclamation, dedicating himself to presenting his audience with the truth. It’s there that the obvious similarities end.
Not once, thankfully, do Chayefsky’s famous words filter through Stewart’s lips. The writer chooses to trust viewers’ understanding of the show and movie's entwined subtext, thus avoiding one of the glaring mistakes in the otherwise excellent Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip pilot. Creator/writer Aaron Sorkin has Wes Mendell, a Lorne Michaels-like showrunner, interrupt his own comedy program to deliver a Beale-ian diatribe regarding culture. When news outlets within the episode report about Mendell’s outburst, they emotionlessly paraphrase Chayefsky: “He was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore.” The quote derails the program’s narrative flow as the subtext of Mendell’s speech becomes obvious text in a see-what-we-did-there acknowledgement.
Ames opts for more subtlety when weaving Blunt and Beale together. The two reporters work at the same fictional company: UBS. The network’s name and logo linger on camera several times throughout Blunt Talk’s initial episodes. These appearances range from building-size advertisements to images in the corner of Blunt’s broadcast. Ames allows Sean Adams to make the UBS connection for viewers. The designer explains, “The…solution for the network identity is derived from a stained glass window on the Howard Beale Show...If that isn't meta enough, I designed a fictional history of the network from 1935–2015 based on a fragmentary shot of the UBS logo behind [actress] Faye Dunaway." This trust in visuals prevents the absurd story from stopping for a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment like Studio 60.
The writer doesn't forget to follow his second piece of advice, either. To first differentiate Blunt from Beale, Ames leans heavily on the familiarity of his series’ lead. Know Stewart only from his Star Trek: Next Generation days? Look for a cameo involving a familiar face delivering advice. Know the actor only for his respected theater work? Be prepared for him to recite Hamlet. Remember him for portraying leaders among men? Listen for constant references to Blunt's military experience.
Once the audience embraces the comfort of the star, Ames subverts all expectations with his humor. That Shakespearean speech? Stewart's character delivers it atop a Jaguar while drunk, high, and surrounded by armed police officers. For good measure, Ames throws in a pair of Ambien-induced dream sequences involving Burt Lancaster and a bevy of dancing women. These antics don’t stray far from the author's style as seen in Bored to Death, Wake Up, Sir!, and The Alcoholic. Blunt may be as serious as Beale one day, but he exists in a world that won’t allow him to attain this gravitas so easily.
Blunt’s lofty goal alone, however, wouldn’t make for an interesting comedy series. The author sees the show as “liv[ing] mostly behind the scenes. This isn’t [The] Newsroom.” He makes sure the audience views the series that way by undermining his protagonist. Unlike Will McAvoy’s “mission to civilize” on The Newsroom, another Sorkin program, Blunt just wants to be “a better father to the American people. And [his] own children, of course.” That second line of dialogue undercuts any chance of the viewers taking the character seriously. Ames further differentiates his style from Chayefsky when he has Blunt miss the flight to his first major assignment post-enlightenment. The calamity of errors begins because of the journalist's losing battle with bathroom automation (another comedic Stewart highlight that needs to be seen and not described). The program still offers satire, but does so without the weighty drama and serious anger of Network.
Ames certainly doesn’t make the character’s life easy. “I try not to be boring,” he says. His latest creation is anything but. As long as the writer and Stewart continue to dance around Chayefsky and Beale with their personal strengths, Blunt Talk will be a great comedy about the drama of saving its lead and his audience.
Don't have enough Jonathan Ames in your life?
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