Tuesday, March 08, 2011

21. 30 Rock

Every few years there are two similar projects that appear on the pop culture horizon and force people to choose between one or the other: Madonna and Cyndi Lauper (I liked Lauper -- hey, she sang in USA for Africa, Madonna didn't), “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” (I abstained from voting in this one), the Beatles and the Rolling Stones* (Beatles all the way). In 2006 there were two shows on the same network about the behind the scenes antics of a comedy show that grappled for a piece of America's viewing time: Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and Tina Fey’s “30 Rock”.

* Here’s something that you don’t see very often: a comparison between the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. The question is always this: “Who's better the Beatles or Elvis?” or "Who's better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?". You never, ever see “Who's better the Rolling Stones or Elvis?” Logic dictates that if this question is asked than Elvis, the Stones and the Beatles are so close in terms of talent, that it's not crazy to think that if A=B and A=C, then B should equal C. This never happens and the question is completely irrelevant with the Beatles becoming the undisputed number one rock band. Therefore, the question should revert to “Who is the second best rock act ever, the Stones or Elvis?”

Mystery solved, America.

During the summer prior to the debut of the two new series, it became apparent that only one of these shows will survive adn the Sorkin show was considered the favorite. For one thing he had the pedigree (“Sports Night” and “The West Wing” were loved by critics and audiences alike), it had a really good cast (Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, DL Hughley, Brad Whitford) and to me, I thought that it was going to be a weekly docu-drama about how a show like Saturday Night Live really was run. Essentially, I thought that it was go to be a serial retelling of Tom Shales’ awesome book “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live”.

It wasn’t. At all. It was over-written, boring, ponderous and at an hour each week, it seemed like the show never ended. The characters all seemed like assholes, which is ok (see "The Larry Sanders Show") but they were dull. And that's not ok. After three episodes, I stopped watching it at its regularly scheduled time. And after five episodes I permanently deleted it from my DVR.

My initial pretenses of “30 Rock” proved to be incorrect too. Since SNL creator Lorne Michaels was among the champions of the show and Fey was heading up the writing, I thought it was going to be a weekly Michaels lap dance reminding us how awesome he is. The cast wasn’t intriguing with Fey and former SNL co-stars Rachael Dratch and Tracy Morgan. And while I liked all three in small doses, the years that they were on SNL aren’t considered the golden years. I was waiting for the inevitable casting of Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon* and Maya Rudolph to round out the suck fest.

* No two SNL castmates got on my nerves like Sanz and Fallon did. Every time they were in a scene together it seemed that they tried their best to break each other up—and often they did. I think that most “comedy rules” are stupid, but one that is important is to not laugh in the middle of a bit. It completely ruins the story for the audience and the performers look like idiots. The fact that both of them did this week after week after week without any recourse, soured me on SNL for a long, long time.

But I was completely wrong about “30 Rock”. While “Studio 60” billed itself as a drama about a comedy show (and looking back, that seems a bit absurd), “30 Rock” was lighter and also played loose with the sitcom format using a lot of flashbacks and cuts. It mirrored a lot of what made "The Simpsons" so great during their early seasons. While "30 Rock" wasn’t entirely original, it wasn’t entirely derivative either. Fey is obviously a student of pop culture with television history as her major and she uses her skills to drop a lot of pop references and have some terrific guest stars that make each episode really shine.People as diverse as Carrie Fisher to Will Arnett to Alan Alda to Matt Damon have appeared on the show. And while the guest star syndrome can get a bit stale when there is too many in one episodes, when there are only a few they are comedic gold.

But it’s not just the guest stars, Fey has surrounded herself with a bunch of terrific actors like Morgan whose Tracy Jordan is one of the most sublime, original television characters ever. He is so good that he seems to be blurring the line between his character and the real Tracy Morgan. Jane Krakowski took over for Dratch before filming began* is great as the self-centered, egotistical star Jenna, while Jack MacBrayer, Scott Adsit and Judah Friedlander round out an impressive ensemble cast.

* You have to wonder what kind of show “30 Rock” would be if Dratch was kept as Jenna. She certainly wouldn’t have been able to pull off the bulk of appearance jokes (Krakowski is very good looking) so I wonder what direction the character would have gone? Dratch stuck around as a sort of utility player for the first season playing dozens of eccentric roles, but she has disappeared from the show in recent seasons. From what I’ve read her and Fey were pretty close, I wonder if this spoiled their friendship at all?

But while all of the characters and their actors are first rate, there is no one like Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. Wikipedia describes the character like this, “[Donaghy is] the decisive, controlling, suave and occasionally senseless network executive who constantly interferes with the goings-on at TGS.” (TGS is short-hand for “The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan” the show within show that Fey’s character [Liz Lemon] is the head writer for.)

However, the explanation doesn’t really capture the essence of Donaghy. He’s the foil for Lemon, the suit that the creative types have to answer to. But he’s not her adversary, in fact he’s more of a mentor and a father figure which leads to a pretty interesting dynamic between the two. And that is what the show feeds on. Fey has said countless times that this relationship is not a Sam-Diane thing where Liz and Jack will eventually sleep with each other. She has flat-out said that this will never happen and I think that’s a great thing because once sex is introduced, the relationship between the characters change for the worse.

Right now, the give-and-take between the two seems fun and even though it was never aggressively pushed at the beginning of the show's run, like all good things it grew organically. And while the relationship is important, having Baldwin play Donaghy as "the heavy" is key. I’ve read a lot about him and he seems like one of the most put-together, cool men on the planet. While on Saturday Night Live, Janeanne Garofolo spoke about him as if she had a school girl crush. It doesn’t seem like impressing Garofolo is an easy trick, so his take on Donaghy seems to be grounded in some reality.

The only thing that is not fun about having Baldwin on the show is that there is always an underlying threat that he’s going to bolt the show. It seems as if he is selling himself short by being on a low-rated sitcom (no matter how brilliant) on a fourth-place network. After his public meltdown of a few years ago (where tapes of him screaming at his daughter were leaked) he talked openly about leaving the show. During the last year or so he has said that once his contract is over (following the 2012 season) he is considering jumping off the “30 Rock” gravy train. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to this because unlike Steve Carrell and “The Office”, I don’t think that “30 Rock” could afford to lose Baldwin. He is that integral to the show’s dynamic.

While writing this entry, I took a peek at the show’s ratings and they have never been good. During the first season they were mired in 102nd place and the highest season rating that they ever received was 69th. I don’t normally judge a show by its rating, but for one of the smartest shows on TV, how can this be? I think that quite simply, not many Americans want to watch a show that is smart. And let’s be honest here, “30 Rock” isn’t “Masterpiece Theater” or “NOVA” there are a few low-brow jokes that wouldn’t be completely out of place on a CBS show such as “Two and a Half Men”.

The problem is there aren’t many of these low-brow jokes and they’re aren’t usually strung together. Plus, I think that Fey drives a lot of middle America crazy. I don’t think that they like her too much because of her spot-on imitation of Sarah Palin and perhaps a smart, witty lady comedian scares them a bit or maybe it’s a backlash against an East coast liberal program. I don’t know. And admittedly, the last two reasons are just pure speculation on my part, but I don’t get why this show isn’t more popular. Most of the characters are original, most of the situations they find themselves in are a bit familiar but have an interesting twist and the acting and writing is terrific.

This has been a common theme for shows like “30 Rock” (see “Arrested Development”, “Freaks and Geeks”, etc.) and it’s nice to see a network ignore the ratings and continue to pump out shows that are both smart and funny. And while the program is scheduled to run until the end of the 2012 season, one has to wonder how long NBC will stick with it after that.

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