Review: Starz’s ‘Blunt Talk’ with Patrick Stewart a weird and welcome addition
Jonathan Ames, whose three-season HBO sitcom “Bored to Death” was one of the best things to cross a television screen in this century, has a new series, “Blunt Talk,” premiering Saturday on Starz. And if it is not up to its predecessor’s mark, it is nevertheless very much the work of the same singular mind, and therefore welcome to this world.
Patrick Stewart plays Walter Blunt, a British news-anchor-cum-pundit, who despite being the star attraction of a fictional American cable news network is slipping in the ratings. His personal life, likewise, is increasingly a shambles. And his valet, Harry (Adrian Scarborough), has a tendency to enable the bad habits of his employer — whom Harry calls “Major,” having served under him in the Falklands War — or is often too wasted himself to curb them.
That Seth MacFarlane of “The Family Guy” and “Ted” et al, is the series’ executive producer might lead one to expect that this would be a ruder, less delicately calibrated show than “Bored to Death,” and it is. But the dominant sensibility is the creator’s. Indeed, this may be the purer, weirder Ames: The Ames of his novels “The Extra Man” and “Wake Up, Sir!” Blunt is not quite as marginal or delusional a character as those in his books — the hero of “Wake Up, Sir!” only hallucinates his butler — but for all his success, he is an outsider, a foreigner, an incomplete, unfinished person whose most significant relationship is with the man he pays to look after him.
As in “Bored,” there are lots of drugs and alcohol and a range of sexual expressions, which in the New York Neverland the first series established played invariably as whimsical. But Hollywood — a city in which Ames, like his main character, is not entirely at home — invariably darkens things, and in place of the subcultural specificity he mined from Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, you get jokes about valet parking and the porn industry, and in place of Paul Auster and Gore Vidal you get references to Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The words “Only in Los Angeles” are actually spoken.
The early episodes have titles, taken from their dialogue, such as “I Seem to Be Running Out of Dreams for Myself,” “I Experience Shame and Anticipate Punishment” and “All My Relationships End in Pain,” which gives you a sense of the mood. In place of the childlike optimism that rules “Bored,” there is a sense of things falling apart. Deciding that he needs to give his viewers hope, Walter asks his team to “start Googling and see if there is any hope out there that might also be true.”
There is an autumnal quality, not unrelated of course, to the fact that the star is 75 years old — unusually fit, as occasion will be found to display, but 75 still — and the character is looking backward. (The first thing Walter does in the series is to compare a bartender’s profile to that of the Duke of Windsor — Edward, that is, who married Mrs. Simpson.) “I feel my life slipping away from me,” he will say, “like a cat that doesn’t want to be held.” He is “low, lost, confused, distracted, dreary, disturbed.”
Supporting Walter at work, and Stewart in the performance, is a cast that includes, along with Scarborough (a Laurence Olivier Award winner), Jacki Weaver (Oscar-nominated for “Animal Kingdom” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), Timm Sharp (of “Undeclared” and “Enlightened”) and Dolly Wells (of HBO’s “Doll & Em”), who gets to say things like, “I’ve never done therapy; I mean, I once called a suicide hotline.” Brent Spiner makes an appearance in the first episode, effecting a brief “Star Trek: TNG” reunion. “Bored to Death” star Jason Schwartzman is slated to appear later in the season.
As in “Bored,” there is some good (and less good) slapstick: A scene in an airport bathroom that plays off the old bit about the uncooperative drinking fountain is particularly well-handled, like “Mr. Bean” with swearing. But “Blunt Talk” can also be quietly sweet, as when Walter makes shadow puppets with his hands, or Harry sings him a sea shanty as they escape slowly by boat down a Venice (Calif.) canal, or when a prostitute maternally kisses the top of Walter’s head. Ames’ characters can border on the grotesque, but he has no problems with that — his is a peculiarly nonjudgmental sensibility, and there is a tenderness that runs through the series and makes the trip worth taking, however improbable the road.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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