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NBC's Great News is a very funny show — once it gets to episode 3

Why are comedy pilots so hard to make? This new sitcom from the 30 Rock folks may offer some clues.

Great News
Andrea Martin and Briga Heelan play mother and daughter.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 23 through 29 is “Chuck Pierce Is Blind,” the third episode of the first season of NBC’s Great News.

Most network comedy pilots are bad. But many, many, many of those bad pilots will give way to good shows, sometimes after just an episode or two. Why is this pattern so common? What makes a comedy pilot so hard to pull off?

The same holds true for NBC’s new TV news-set sitcom Great News, which hails from 30 Rock’s Tina Fey (she’s only a producer on this one; 30 Rock alum Tracey Wigfield created it). The pilot is dire, trying to do too much in too little a running time. Yet things are already turning around by episode two and are mostly righted by episodes three and four (which both aired this week).

But, as is typical, the biggest hype the series received from its network was in the build-up to the airing of that first episode. (To be fair to NBC, it put Great News on after the still-popular-if-fading Voice results show.) The strategy hasn’t really worked. The pilot pulled in a fairly strong viewership number, but ratings have dipped for every subsequent episode after the pilot.

So the question remains: Why didn’t NBC opt to put a much better installment, like the series’ third outing, “Chuck Pierce Is Blind,” to air first? It’s not like the pilot set up so much vital information that it couldn’t have aired later, to give the series its best shot. Or, maybe the question is an even bigger one: Why are so many broadcast network comedy pilots so bad, when broadcast network comedies, on the whole, are still pretty good?

Great News’ weak pilot struggles in the ways most comedy pilots struggle

Great News
John Michael Higgins and Nicole Richie play dueling news anchors.

There are twin pressures on the comedy pilot in this day and age. The first is that network comedies are just too darn short. Any given episode is 22 minutes, after commercials, and when you have to set up six main characters and a handful of funny bit players, as the Great News pilot does, then you have limited real estate to do anything but frantically hurl jokes at the wall in the hopes something will work.

And the Great News pilot doesn’t just do a lot — it does too much. It sets up the series’ central premise (a successful news producer’s new intern is the person she least wants to see more of: her mother), and it sets up all those characters, and it teases out a bunch of other relationships we’re meant to anticipate seeing more of, from a nascent will-they/won’t-they to a rivalry between the news show’s two anchors.

But all of this happens because of the second reason network comedy pilots struggle: the people in charge at broadcast networks seem to think viewers won’t watch a comedy if it doesn’t have some huge, high-concept premise that can’t be easily explained in a pilot. And the best TV comedy pilots are almost always ones where the characters and jokes have room to breathe, not pilots where lots of plot has to unspool.

Thus, the most common network sitcom pilot is probably “a new character walks into a situation all of the other characters are familiar with.”

For instance, Cheersmy vote for the best TV comedy pilot ever made — brings Diane Chambers to the titular bar. The Office (UK edition) brings the camera crew into the office, where it’s invited to watch long-established dynamics play out. Arrested Development offers a variation on this, where Michael Bluth returns to his family after a long time away. Thus, the other characters have an excuse to fill in the new character on what they don’t know.

Great News uses a version of this story, in which protagonist Katie’s mom, Carol, starts working in her office. But because of everything else that has to be set up — including the basics of Carol and Katie’s relationship — the pilot ends up choking on exposition. Characters are introduced in a lightning flash of a joke, then wander offscreen.

It’s too hectic and feels like it’s trying too hard. What could have been a fun workplace comedy is hurt by the way it can never slow down, lest the audience (or, more accurately, the network executives offering notes) lose interest. That leaves viewers with one overall impression of the series, based on the pilot: Huh. A lot happened. I’m not sure I remember much of it.

Great News has already turned things around by episode three

Great News
Chuck’s vanity results in him going to work when he’s nearly blind.

This makes evaluating a new comedy tough for most TV critics, at least based on the pilot. In the case of Great News, NBC sent critics the entire season, so we could see how rapidly it all came together.

But even if it hadn’t, I would have seen enough in the pilot to make me cautiously optimistic, beyond the fact that Wigfield created it and the great cast (headed up by Briga Heelan and Andrea Martin as Katie and Carol).

For one thing, the idea of a mother working in an entry-level position for her successful and powerful child is one I haven’t seen done in quite this way. For another, the rivalry between the anchors (John Michael Higgins and Nicole Richie) had a similar tension with potential for laughs. For still another, doing 30 Rock-style “500 jokes per second” humor in a TV newsroom is a fundamentally sound idea.

And, indeed, by the time Good News gets to episode three (episode three!), these various tendrils are starting to bear fruit (though, weirdly, the central mother-daughter relationship is the one the show seems least interested in). The Chuck of the episode’s title, played by Higgins, is a vainglorious news anchor who doesn’t want to admit he’s aging and finds in Carol a willing conspirator when he has to take a day off to get cataract surgery. (He’s terrified to show physical weakness, lest he be fired.) Vanity is one of those things that’s almost always funny; that’s doubly true when Higgins is playing it.

What’s more, “Chuck Pierce Is Blind” is willing to indulge in a bunch of different kinds of jokes. There’s rapid-fire verbal humor. There are cutaways to quick sight gags. There’s very broad slapstick (especially after Chuck’s surgery, when he can’t see but has to pretend he can, lest his boss catch on to why he took a day off). And when the show needs to go for broke on what Chuck’s post-surgery eyes looking horrifically funny, by God, it goes for broke on the makeup job in hilarious fashion.

Great News hasn’t figured everything out just yet. Adam Campbell’s Greg Walsh — Katie’s boss and the guy Chuck is trying to put one over on — isn’t as well-developed as the other regulars yet, and Martin, talented as she is, has a tendency to steal focus in every scene she’s in.

But this is a better show than the first episode might have suggested, one that deserved a better shake than a bunch of puzzled Superstore fans (who probably should remember their favorite show had a messy pilot) turning it off and saying, “What the hell was that?”

Comedy pilots need time to develop and room to let their stories play out. Networks would do well to remember that.

Great News airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

Correction: This article originally misstated when Great News’ pilot first aired. It aired on Tuesday, not Thursday.

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