The first ten minutes of Starz new comedy Blunt Talk are promising. TV news personality Walter Blunt (played by Patrick Stewart)* sits alone at a bar downing whisky after whisky and talking to the kind of patient, magnanimous bartender that only exists in movies and TV. Blunt bores his bartender with the kind of topics that are only interesting to hyper-intelligent old men: an American divorcee who almost became the Queen of England, financial remunerations for missing testicles, etc. Some fans recognize him and try to engage him but he has little interest. Instead he finishes his drink, bothers the bar’s pianist and heads out into the Los Angeles night to drive home, drunk.
*You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a Jim Beam commercial. Something about Patrick Stewart screams whisky spokesman.
What makes these first ten minutes so strong is that it establishes a clear sense of melancholy and failure that can make Walter Blunt a strong character. And for a show that bears his name, Walter Blunt needs to be a strong, interesting character. Even shortly after he leaves the bar, he remains mostly sympathetic as he accidentally solicits the services of a prostitute, discovers she’s trans and still sweetly just wants to rest his head on her breasts like he just needs to finally sleep after a life-time of being punishingly, cruelly awake. Then the police arrive and suddenly Blunt Talk is a cartoon…and not a particularly funny one.
Patrick Stewart is a great actor and a remarkably charismatic human being based on his public appearances and social media. That combined with his undeniably cool appearance (like his face was cut out of a mountain that was already itself made up of foxy old men rather than stone) means he’s about the best possible actor on paper to portray a modern day Howard Beale. Hell, he might have even be a better choice than Peter Finch to play Howard Beale in the first place. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Blunt Talk chooses to reduce an actor and character with such potential depth into a two-dimensional clown.
A staggering amount of humor in the first two episodes is dedicated to Blunt’s British-ness. When the prostitute asks Blunt whether the presence of her penis bothers him, he responds “No, I’m English.” He is a veteran of the Falkland War and has a dedicated British man-servant from the conflict named Harry who follows him everywhere and still calls him “Major.” This was funny in a couple of Archer episodes but to delve into this relationship every single episode is insane. Blunt’s producer (played by a perpetually wide-eyed Romany Malco) says that his only redeeming quality post-scandal is that he’s British. Harry later says “tea is essential during a crisis, sir. And at one point Walter Blunt drinks five little cups of tea in a row like a marathon runner downing Dixie cups of water mid-race. What the hell, man. The lion’s share of the humor basically amounts to “British people be like/American people be like…” which must have killed in Boston pubs in 1779 but are truly dumb in 2015.
To be fair: there is nothing wrong with two-dimensional clowns in a half-hour comedy. Some of the best comedies on TV over the past few years have been filled with limited, two-dimensional characters. Nobody on 30 Rock was necessarily a genius but at least Liz Lemon was human enough to navigate the viewer through a jungle of truly insane but hilarious people. The problem with Blunt Talk is that Walter Blunt is supposed to be the kind of man who commands respect. His contemporaries are people like Anderson Cooper. He’s supposed to be like Piers Morgan if he weren’t a total chode. And there is nothing outwardly indicative that anyone in the country would view Walter Blunt as anything other than a Hamlet-quoting psychopath. Because that’s what he is.
In addition to its mangling of its central character, Blunt Talk is bizarrely sanctimonious. Just when we thought our long reign of Sorkin terror was over, here comes a character who knows even less than Will McAvoy but is just as stubborn. At one point, one of Blunt’s writers utters the line “The truth about climate change is devastating, Walter. No one wants to hear we’re committing mass suicide.” She’s not wrong, of course, but it’s excruciating to have a camera fixed on an actor’s face just to deliver a line directly from a writer’s mind. It’s only a five-second line but it feels like it takes an eternity to utter and it comes directly after the moral center of the show has taken dozens of drugs and right before he commits journalistic fraud.
Blunt Talk wants to be the story of a broken, flawed man who still has all the answers for this country. It’s a tall order but certainly achievable. Unfortunately, through two episodes it hasn’t found a way to incorporate dumb, slapstick comedy into the proceedings. That’s because it shouldn’t. The writers should be mad as hell and not take this anymore.