In the lead-up to the fall of 2006, many articles were written about the strangeness of NBC’s fall lineup including both Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
Yes, that was a simpler time when NBC’s *oddest* programming decision was dedicating 90 minutes of programming to a pair of shows about the behind-the-scenes struggles at a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy show.
Now, in retrospect, critics were right to wonder if an audience existed for two such shows. It turns out that, all things considered, there wasn’t actually an audience for *one* such show to survive on a stronger network. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” lasted one truncated season, while “30 Rock” is in its fourth season, occupying valuable post-“Office” real estate because NBC execs are terrified to see how small its audience might be solo.
What we didn’t properly anticipate was that Sorkin’s drama would become an awkwardly confessional (sometimes fulfilling) piece of fast-talking therapy, alienating many viewers almost instantly, squandering the good will for an excellent cast. Or that Fey’s comedy would find its footing after initial recasting and tone problems to become one of TV’s funniest shows and the winner of the decade’s last three Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Victim of wild quality swings — this current fourth season launched with a trio of soft, only-slightly-funny episodes — “30 Rock” none-the-less has delivered enough episodes of the highest quality to justify placement at No. 20 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[More on “30 Rock” after the break…]
When “30 Rock” ditched original pilot co-star Rachel Dratch in favor of Jane Krakowski, there were lamentations that NBC was trying to sex the show up and accusations of superficiality. The first thing that should be noted here is that, like most critics, I saw the Rachel Dratch version of the pilot and she wasn’t especially funny. The second is that even at that early stage, Fey and Lorne Michaels and the rest of the “30 Rock” team already knew that “The Girlie Show” wasn’t really going to be the centerpiece of the series moving forward.
Maybe the decision to push “TGS” in the background started off being about differentiation from “Studio 60,” but it ended up being the best decision they could have made. Over 66 episodes, we’ve barely seen any skits from “TGS,” rarely heard any practical discussion of what the show was putting on the air and only occasionally needed to feign interest in the show’s ratings or future.
Those specific qualities that made “Studio 60” equal parts illuminating and isolating were jettisoned long ago, putting the focus squarely on the relationship between Fey’s Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. The dynamic between the two grounded “30 Rock” as essentially a universalized workplace comedy, with the master of industry butting heads, but usually coming to compromise, with the creative intellectual. As a result, the butt of the joke ceased to be the potentially awful, ratings-starved late-night show that Lemon was running and became NBC, General Electric and the Sheinhardt Wig Company, the clueless corporate entity trying, with little success, to run a media company, while also making profits.
This put “30 Rock” in an utterly unique position: It was able to chronicle the demise of NBC, a slump that had already begun before “30 Rock” premiered but hit its nadir as “30 Rock” hit its creative peak, while simultaneously being able to participate in that demise. The cliche goes that comedy is tragedy plus time, but “30 Rock” has been chronicling NBC’s decline from within, without an iota of distance or separating perspective. And NBC, bless ’em, has been letting “30 Rock” tear the network to shreds, both within the show and within the actual network’s lineup. Despite three seasons of critical raves and three consecutive Emmys, “30 Rock” pulls in a solid demo number mostly because “The Office” is one of TV’s top shows in the 18-49 demo. By keeping “30 Rock” nestled in that 9:30 Thursday time slot, usually airing at 9:31 to get even more of an “Office” boost, NBC has kept “30 Rock” afloat, while simultaneously sacrificing the growth potential of new comedies, mostly leaving shows like “Community” and “Parks and Recreation” to flounder on their own. An argument could be made that “30 Rock” is TV’s most hilarious opportunistic parasite.
Two years ago at the TCA Awards, Fey thanked us for helping make “30 Rock” “the most successful cable show on broadcast TV,” which was only true to a point, since “30 Rock” has done its part in contributing to turning NBC into a glorified cable network.
It’s schadenfreude when the other networks mine gold from NBC’s current plight, but what is it when you find pleasure in your own misfortune? It’s not quite masochism, but that’s what “30 Rock” has been doing for four years.
The show’s snideness and winking derision are at the center of its awesomeness, but also a limiting factor for the majority of TV viewers. The show mocks ignorance, apathy and stereotypes as well as the conventions of TV comedies, so why wouldn’t viewers rather watch “Two and a Half Men”? Over the course of 150 episodes, “Two and a Half Men” has occasionally insulted the intelligence of its viewers, but it’s never once actively insulted the viewers themselves.
There’s so much winking and nudging and coy cleverness happening on “30 Rock” that the show has felt, at times, as if it lacked any kind of heart, any sort of central narrative and relationships to keep viewers engaged between punchlines directed at Republicans, Jay Leno and reality TV.
Though Liz Lemon’s character progression tends to go in retreating circles, the show has actually deepened the bond between Liz and Jack sufficiently that even when all else fails, I can find an emotional core in their interactions.
In addition to writing and producing, Fey’s evolution as an actress has been noticeable and valuable to the series. Her greatest asset has always been her lack of ego as a performance, which meant that she was still humiliating herself even in the fall of 2008 when Sarah Palin transformed her into one of the most valuable actresses in Hollywood. She’s not afraid to act awful (“Reunion”), ugly (the HD demo in “Dealbreakers Talk Show No. 0001”) or just plain ridiculous (opposite Oprah in “Believe in the Stars”).
There have been articles that made it sound as if “30 Rock” is the starting point for Baldwin’s career resurgence, which ignores the Oscar nomination he received for “The Cooler.” It also ignores that Baldwin had been stealing scenes in movies for years, making the most of his roles in vehicles like “Elizabethtown,” “The Last Shot” and “State & Main.” Baldwin had transitioned into comic character actor brilliance years earlier, but “30 Rock” gave him a vehicle to do absolutely anything. The scene in “Rosemary’s Baby” where Jack accompanies Tracy to the therapist is probably the funniest sequence of any show in the entire decade and then playing an evil telenovela villain in “Generalissimo” secured his second straight Emmy. Baldwin can sell anything, be it the sentimental moments in last week’s “Secret Santa” or the extended unpaid product plug for McFlurries in last season’s “St. Valentine’s Day.”
It’s because Baldwin and Fey are so good and so tethered to reality that everybody else can spin off into inspired madness.
It boggles my mind that some people are still resistant to Tracy Morgan’s work on “30 Rock,” while other people have compiled lists of very word out of Tracy Jordan’s mouth. Morgan earned his first Emmy nomination last year, a well-deserved nod if you check out his lunacy in “Larry King” or visiting his old high school in “Kidney Now!”
Krakowski maybe hasn’t gotten as much to do as she would have if “TGS” had remained the show’s center, but in episodes like “Jackie Jormp-Jomp,” she’s reminded us of her musical-comedy chops.
And although Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth the Page is one notch from over-exposed (some would say several notches past over-exposed), he’s proven that even if he’s just playing a one-joke character, he can repurpose and reinvigorate that joke almost weekly.
Depending on the week you tune in, you might also get gold from Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Keith Powell, Katrina Bowen, Kevin Brown (Dot Com), Grizz Chapman, Joh Lutz, Chris Parnell or Maulik Pancholy. And even if the show has become nearly “Will & Grace”-esque in its reliance on guest stars, that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t given a worthy showcase to folks like Carrie Fisher, Alan Alda, Tim Conway, Edie Falco and Jon Hamm over the years.
Unevenness aside, I have no problems placing “30 Rock” at No. 20 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? Death isn’t the obstacle it used to be.