As a zany workplace comedy focused on the production of a live TV show, “Great News” has always been just a few degrees removed from “30 Rock.” Creator Tracy Wigfield came up the ranks through Tina Fey’s classic NBC sitcom, so it’s only fitting that her Fey-produced debut features a few similarities to a show Wigfield produced, wrote, and even cameo-d in. (She also co-stars in “Great News,” as Beth, the rather intense meteorologist).
After a critically approved but less-than-buzzy first season, Wigfield & Co. are leaning into the likeness: Tina Fey has joined the ensemble cast for seven episodes; series lead Katie Wendelson (Briga Heelan) is shifting into a mentor-mentee relationship with her new boss (played by Fey); the show is re-focusing on sharper topical storylines, and Chris Parnell, a “30 Rock” favorite as Dr. Leo Spaceman, even drops by for a guest spot in Episode 2.
While the new season can’t recapture the magic Fey once sparked on NBC, it does push “Great News” in more surprising directions. Season 2 opens up exciting opportunities for most of the strong cast to strut their stuff, even if the “30 Rock” structural alterations also illustrate some of the restrictions facing Version 2.0.
First and foremost, let’s talk about Fey; she’s the main reason anyone who’s not already on board with “Great News” will give Season 2 a shot. It’s odd to say a three-time Emmy winner for acting is underrated as a performer, but Fey does invite it upon herself. Dismissive of her abilities even when she’s being honored for them, Fey is far better than just her impressions. She’s wonderfully expressive, acutely funny, and typically very smart about choosing roles that land right in her comfort zone (either outrageous, like her “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “SNL” characters, or aggressively down-to-earth, like in “This Is Where I Leave You” or “Date Night”).
As Diana St. Tropez in “Great News,” the new network head and icon of female empowerment, Fey straddles the line between extremes. Diana is a power player; she says things like “I’m never not doing kegles” and stares intently at underlings without responding (to imitate male listening skills). She’s decisive and opinionated. She always wears crisp suits and sports perfect hair.
She, in short, is the female Jack Donaghy. Katie quickly assumes the role of a young Liz Lemon, before she got her own show, and Diana quickly becomes the mentor guiding her to the promised land of “having it all.” “Be careful,” Diana tells Katie’s mother Carol (Andrea Martin) — during an excellent arc on older women who struggle to understand a younger generation who want more than Carol’s did — “I’m one of the only women in the world who’s figured out how to have it all without going insane.”
As intriguing as it is for TV fans to see Fey fill Alec Baldwin’s shoes, Diana and Katie’s relationship has yet to reach Liz and Jack levels of comedy. Part of this is simply because it’s impossible to match the unparalleled chemistry of such indelible figures. Diana’s addition allows for organically intelligent discussions about women in power (including one recent presidential nominee) and light pop culture jabs at “Westworld” and Taylor Swift.
But when Katie walks into Diana’s office and gets asked, “What are your goals?”, the resulting “30 Rock” flashbacks — to Liz being professionally pushed by Jack — only highlight what’s missing. Heelan is no Tina Fey. She’s energetic with well-timed comedy, and a meticulous performer, but she’s not as endearingly demonstrative as Fey. There’s something missing from her tête-à-têtes with co-workers, where the intent is communicated but not deeply felt.
More than any noticeable mistake, Heelan feels miscast, and as much as it hurts to say this, Tina Fey might be, too. She — and I’m going to be careful about how I phrase this — lacks the commanding precision of Alec Baldwin, or, say, Elizabeth Banks, who successfully went toe-to-toe with Baldwin for years as his better half, Avery Jessup. Fey is always a welcome presence, and it’s clear why she’d be brought in for Season 2. She, like Heelan, doesn’t hurt the show, but these two aren’t quite right for their respective roles.
That being said, the “30 Rock” rejiggering brings big benefits for the supporting players. Katie and Carol were the two leads of Season 1 and did a fine job carrying the load, but Carol works better as a Jenna Maroney-esque best friend figure. She’s still prominent in Season 2, but now she’s challenged by more than just her daughter. She squares off against Diana and Chuck (John Michael Higgins) independently, and Martin digs into each conflict to an inspiring degree. (Her cameo in a rap video during Episode 2, where she shouts out “Suge Knight’s a bitch!”, is so good.)
Higgins, too, gets a boost. Suddenly irrelevant as an old school news anchor in the modern news show Diana creates (“a bunch of lunatics screaming at each other,” as she puts it), Chuck is the butt of a few too-easy old man jokes, but he enlivens even those with an addictive energy. Throw in a few plot lines meant to steer ‘shippers away from obsessing over Katie and Greg’s (Adam Campbell) coupling — a forced, expected development introduced with little effort in Season 1 — and “Great News” Season 2 is up on its freshman season in terms of smarts, spirit, and surprises.
“Great News” may never be the successor to “30 Rock” many hoped it would be, nor the second coming that its sophomore season bluntly tries to take by force, but there are enough laughs to match the talent involved. The well-utilized cast is charming, the writing a bit sharper, and, oddly enough, the arcs feel more original. Moreover, it’s not giving into the mudslinging satiric opportunities inherent to its premise. Modern news may be a minefield in a trash dump right now — and Season 2 is willing to acknowledge that — but this is an earnest, character-driven comedy; it’s not trying to be overly subversive.
Jack Donaghy may realize “Great News” is missing the mystical “third heat,” but Liz Lemon would be happy to crawl into her Snuggie, eat some night cheese, and binge until she’s passed out.
“Great News” Season 2 premieres Thursday, September 28 at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC.