Friday, August 28, 2015

The Once and Future King: Patrick Stewart and Blunt Talk

Patrick Stewart and Adrian Scarborough star in Blunt Talk, on Starz.

On these pages almost three years ago, I mourned the loss of HBO's Bored to Death. When the Jonathan Ames-helmed comedy (a literate madcap romp with a shameless New Yorker feel) left our cable airwaves, I genuinely expected to never see its like again. I shouldn't have worried – television has provided. With recent shows like Simon Rich's Man Seeking Woman (which will return early in 2016) and Shalom Auslander's Happyish (which sadly will not) arriving to fill the Jonathan Ames-shaped hole on the small screen, it is almost as if there is a trend afoot. (Mind you, with the current surfeit of quality television – coming from the newfangled likes of Amazon, Netflix, and even Yahoo! – we may be in an age with more trends than channels!)

Last week, Jonathan Ames himself returned to television as creator and writer of Blunt Talk, a dark comedy starring Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, an aging cable newscaster coming to end of his rope, personally and professionally. The Starz series is notably Stewart's first regular television role since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air in 1994. The 75-year-old actor has, of course, been lending his voice and image to American Dad! since 2005 in the recurring role of Avery Bullock, Stan's drug-addicted, polymorphously perverse CIA boss, showcasing the Shakespearean actor's willingness to play with both his image and our ever expanding boundaries of good taste. American Dad! (and Family Guy) creator Seth MacFarlane is actually on board with Blunt Talk as executive producer, so it's not surprising that Blunt has much more in common with Bullock than with Jean-Luc Picard or Charles Xavier.

Major Walter Blunt, RM (Ret.) hosts a struggling cable news chat show (think of Piers Morgan, but with charisma and an unconcealed mother fixation), and, recently divorced for the fourth time and not as capable of holding his cocaine and Oxycontin as he used to be, he's clearly seen better days. The series opens with Blunt talking the ear off a patient bartender at a high-end L.A. bar. The lengthy monologue moves seamlessly from praising Wallis Simpson to (presciently it turns out, as the episode continues) a particularly bawdy anecdote about Jimmy Donahue, the Woolworth scion and friend of the Duke of Windsor. Ardent Jonathan Ames fans will notice that the speech appears almost verbatim in the writer's 1998 novel The Extra Man, but it serves the show brilliantly here, introducing viewers to both the charm and the pedantry of the title character.

Combining a wide-eyed schoolboy fascination with the world with a septuagenarian's world-weary misanthropy, Blunt is the kind of stunted man-child of a particularly British type that perhaps could only be portrayed by an officer of the Order of the British Empire. And true to form, Sir Patrick plays Blunt with all the safeties off: a man taken to delivering alcohol-induced soliloquies from Hamlet, able to make the public solicitation of a young transgender street prostitute somehow genuinely gallant, and equally capable of disarming and disabling two LAPD police officers. For all his self-destructive narcissism, in short, Blunt is easy to love.

Jacki Weaver (big spoon) consoling Patrick Stewart in Blunt Talk.

He spends much of the first episode slipping in and out of a drug-addled haze (including one Busby Berkeley-choreographed hallucination), but he wakes up every time surrounded by the devoted members of his staff – men and women who seem ready to follow him into the darkest, and strangest, places. ("Somebody Google ruptured testicles." … "I'm on it.") Blunt has a contagious energy, evidenced as well by the devotion of his longtime manservant/valet Harry (placed with raucous innocence by Adrian Scarborough, The King's Speech) who has been at his side since they served together in the Falklands Conflict. That battlefield devotion is on display on every level – not only Harry, but even some of the Millennial-aged American staffers regularly call him "Major" and sometimes snap to a pseudo-salute. Viewers cannot help but feel much the same attraction.

With its cadre of enabling staffers, its twisted satire of celebrity and the Los Angeles setting, there's a welcome amount of The Larry Sanders Show in Blunt Talk. (Ripe as it is for parody, there is even a bit of The Newsroom there, especially in the "public breakdown leads to renewed sense of purpose" storyline.) But as Blunt negotiates a full complement of neuroses born of mother issues, British public schools and lifelong addiction, there's also a small story of redemption being told. What makes Blunt compelling (and often, despite the exaggerated mania of the plots, surprisingly human) is that unlike Larry Sanders, his narcissism isn't merely fed by a childish need for attention, but seems nourished by a genuine sense that he still has greatness in him. (And whether that belief is the product of class entitlement or simply drug-fueled delusion hardly seems to matter. He may also be correct.) For decades, Blunt has been living the kind of blessed existence, true of both the Hollywood famous and the British highborn, that has insulated him – until now – from any of the consequences of his bad behaviour. When Blunt asks aloud why it is that he seems to keep undermining himself, hiss solicitous executive producer, played by Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), tells him: "You've always been reckless, but you were better at it."

The new television season won't go full throttle for several weeks, but if 2015 becomes known as the year that Jonathan Ames and Seth MacFarlane brought Patrick Stewart roaringly back to the small screen, this one TV viewer will be more than satisfied.

The second episode of Blunt Talk airs tomorrow night (Saturday, August 29) on Starz. (If you missed it, the first episode is currently available for free streaming on the network's website for American audiences.)

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.            

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