The hip thing or maybe just the smart thing is to affect concern about Seth MacFarlane executive producing Blunt Talk, but he’s given us a premise up there with “MTV cops”: Patrick Stewart in a comedy. The proof is in the pudding. In “I Seem To Be Running Out Of Dreams For Myself,” Stewart makes faces, dances while driving, nestles in a woman’s bosom, drunkenly shouts Shakespeare at a bunch of cops pointing their guns at him, and deeply rues both the world and his place in it, and that’s just in the first act. What unifies Stewart’s performance is the sense that Walter’s an old man who’s starting to lose it. He snaps at irritating questions and immediately feels sorry for not being able to control himself. At times he doesn’t seem to realize how out of touch he is, but at others there’s a twinkle in his expression that suggests he’s just playing. In short, Stewart’s hilarious and moving as the Falklands War veteran turned US news anchor Walter Blunt. Walter is a failure, just off his fourth marriage and on his way out of a job, especially after the aforementioned police scandal, but he can’t give up. On anything, that is. He often sounds like a commanding officer trying to rouse his men for one last charge, and Stewart has the charisma to conscript us as well.
After a bunch of drinks at the bar, some sips of the flask in his car, and an off-screen edible finally starting to kick in, Walter winds up with a prostitute named Gisele (Tracy Lysette) in one of the episode’s best scenes. He just wants to nurse and suckle on her breasts, as he puts it. “You just wanna kiss on my titties?” She’s proud of her breasts, grown from hormones and healthy eating. They’re part of the reason most people think she’s a “biological girl or whatever that means.” Walter responds in awe of her rack tinged with a not all that faint sense of melancholy about progress, time passing, himself aging. “The world has changed so much.” His grandeur is a major source of his charm, the way he slips into poetic reverie (“Are you a lady of the night, a courtesan?”) and plays off of just about anyone with an almost loopy sense of scope. Walter sees the world as a romantic epic.
In other words, he’s a Jonathan Ames hero. Ames is the man behind Bored To Death, which gave us a Don Quixote climax in present day Brooklyn. As pre-air reviewer John Teti notes, Blunt Talk often sounds a lot like Bored To Death, and in particular you could easily imagine Walter’s lines being delivered by Ted Danson. “They think my frontal lobe’s been shot, which is ludicrous. I mean only yesterday I did the Times crossword. And it was a Thursday.” Blunt Talk sounds broad and goofy on paper, and it has its moments, such as the Benny Hill throwback where cops chase Walter around a car, but Ames keeps such a straight face that the show never feels like it’s going out of bounds. Along with his rich color palette and the knowing sense that Walter’s just asking us to humor him on his last stand, Ames keeps a firm grip on the tone of Blunt Talk.
Which is good because the plot of the pilot kind of gets away from him. Unfortunately that’s Walter’s only scene with Gisele. Almost as soon as he lays his head on her breasts, cops arrive. No money’s been exchanged, but there’s probably something they can charge the pair with already. Then Walter makes it really easy for them. He grabs one cop by the shoulder, manages to swipe his baton, and knees him in the balls, and with the baton he swats the other cop’s gun out of his hands. By the time backup arrives in league with a news crew, he’s standing on the car lamenting his state with no small bit of exaggeration: “Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions!” At this he swings his baton, a performative movement rather than a tactical one. His body man Harry (Adrian Scarborough) reminds him this isn’t the audience for Hamlet. Walter responds, “It isn’t?” Anyway, he’s eventually arrested and charged with a felony or two, and the footage has made him a disgrace. Facing cancellation, he comes up with a Hail Mary: one last show where he’ll give an exclusive, record-straightening interview to himself!
It sounds ridiculous, but that’s kind of how Walter Blunt works. It turns out part of his routine involves spooning with a female associate, Rosalie (Jacki Weaver). “Let me stimulate your intellect,” she says as she pinches his nipple. It works. That’s what gives him his aha moment to interview himself. Another part of his process is revealed in a surprise cut to a shirtless Walter hunched over toward the camera as his right-hand man Harry (Adrian Scarborough) whips him with a towel in the background. Walter reprimands him for forgetting “the dialogue.” Harry resumes: “You’ve been unclean, Major! Very unclean! A naughty! Naughty! Boy!”
Yes, Harry calls him Major—they served together in the Falklands—and Rosalie’s been with him for 20 years. It’s not clear if either of them are newspeople or if they’re just there for Walter. The definite newsroom staff is equally undefined after the first episode, but the casting is promising: Dolly Wells (Doll & Em), Timm Sharp (Enlightened), Karan Soni (Other Space), and Mary Holland.
In an interview with Splitsider, creator Jonathan Ames explains he writes with images in mind, and his two examples for “Dreams” are Walter alone at a bar and Walter interviewing himself. The second lands exactly right. As soon as I saw the two very determined Walters taking this charade so seriously, I burst out laughing. Comedic climax of the episode, or the start of it anyway. The whole thing is a gas, from pre-recorded Walter’s barrage of loud, angry “Why?!”s to the moment live Walter betrays how wounded he is by his interrogator, Stewart pleading clemency from his past self. “I’ve lost my way. You know that!”
But the other image almost doesn’t even qualify as a cinematic image, because the camera moves so quickly you can barely register its impact. Like Mad Men, Blunt Talk opens with the camera approaching a man sitting by himself and facing away from us in a bar. Pause the moment it begins and you see Walter framed by a lighted octagonal decoration, like he’s looking into a mirror. But Mad Men lingers on the sight, and it shows him working before breaking the spell. We get an idea of this man alone. Blunt Talk hooks around Walter to show his drink being poured and pans up to his face just in time for “Thank you, Stan. You’re too kind.” We have no time to absorb the idea of this man alone at a bar before he starts talking to someone, breaking the solitude. In fact, he turns out to be rather gregarious, although it’s too late and he’s too drunk to hide his irritation with the question, “Are you okay?” Instead what we get from that opening is a sense of the man, lonely, friendly, and knowledgeable.
That’s not to dismiss the art direction of “Dreams.” While much of it is shot with a television-chic medium focus that blurs out the background, reducing our information to basically the characters and the smeared backdrop, the smearing is part of life in Walter’s world. Even in a deep focus shot like that of his car on the street, a third of the screen is the distorted reflection of the neon blue city lights. It’s like, and his behavior backs this up, Walter is a little bit removed from his world. Another hallucinatory touch flies by. After Harry abandons Walter to convene with their commanding officer, the latest reference to the Falklands War, Walter grits his teeth and continues through the room with a monitor over his shoulder playing, well, it’s blurry, but it looks like it’s a clip of Walter himself reporting from the frontlines somewhere, wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, evoking what he probably looked like in the Falklands.
What happens at the end of the Blunt Talk pilot is considerably better than the last time a newsman collapsed at work on pay cable, but it’s abrupt. Walter promises the American people he’ll continue to fight for them using the most powerful weapon there is, truth, and then he grabs his chest and trust falls (Ambien collapses) to the floor. A cut to the credits there would have been a kick in the pants. After all, Walter’s not in any danger. But the episode keeps going as if he is. Everyone rushes to look after him, and Harry cradles his head and screams for Major not to leave him. After a slow, respectful pull back through the studio, the episode cuts to black. Why is everyone taking this so seriously? Is Blunt Talk about the aftermath of this collapse?
The problem is, after the pilot, we don’t know what Blunt Talk looks like as a series. Maybe that’s why Starz released the first two episodes early instead of just the pilot. Is this the story of Walter trying to revitalize his career? Is it some concussion-related newsman prophet thing? Is the show his life flashing before his eyes in the moment before death? Hard to say. That’s not so unusual lately. Enlightened is a show that people tend to say didn’t “come together” until episode four or so. It’s all there in the pilot, but it’s always easier to see in retrospect. Maybe Blunt Talk will follow that model, clarifying itself. Ames stresses that it gets better and better as it goes, especially around halfway through the season. For now all we know is it’s about Walter Blunt. And with Patrick Stewart in the role, for now that just might be enough.
- “I Seem To Be Running Out Of Dreams For Myself” is written by Jonathan Ames and directed by Tristram Shapeero.
- Walter tells Stan the bartender, “It cost Jimmy’s mother a quarter of a million dollars, which is not enough for having lost your testicles, but in those days it was.” “Well, it was the Depression.” “Quite.”
- Gisele: “Do you know what type of girl I am?” Walter: “Well, you said you were a goddess and a model.”
- “I know we’ve only just met, Gisele, but I like you very much. Thank you for being kind to me.” She doesn’t quite know what to do with that. “I like you, too,” she says just to say something.
- The Bridge On The River Kwai theme (or another whistled version of “Colonel Bogey’s March” that recalls The Bridge On The River Kwai theme) plays as Walter is hauled off in the back of a police car.
- Walter gets an idea at a meeting with his boss, played by Romany Malco: “What if I had a priest absolve me on air?” “Seriously?” “Rabbi?”
- Walter reeling off pre-recorded emotional reactions for his interview is magnificent. The chosen emotions, the rhythm, and Stewart’s expressions make for a quick, funny montage. “Coquettish!”
- Timm Sharp’s Jim offers Walter a way to stay awake: “It’s a kind of speed. It’s very effective. I used to be wildly addicted. But I’m better now. Sort of.”