Now Playing: The Go! Team--"Apollo Throwdown"
My hibernation this year (complicated by the sight several minutes ago of goldfinches outside my window) coincides with the availability of any number of great or interesting-looking TV shows on Netflix streaming, and one of the ways in which I intend to beat the cold this year is to catch up on several. First up is a show that I quite enjoyed some time back but inexplicably fell out of watching.
30 Rock (2006-):
Former Saturday Night Live performer and head writer Tina Fey pitched 30 Rock as a semi-autobiographical look at a comedy variety show on NBC. Soon after its greenlighting, it went on to become a "tentpole" (to quote Tracy Jordan) for NBC's legendary Thursday night lineup, a time and place defining the national form since the mid-1980s heyday of The Cosby Show and Cheers. Critically acclaimed, steeped in NBC lore, and strong enough to not only survive but also obliquely comment on threats like low ratings, NBC's purchase from GE by Comcast (the latter indirectly responsible for this blog!) and a number of threatened departures by star Alec Baldwin, it's now entered a sixth year with no apparent plans to call it quits. Besotted like a great many others with Fey's wit, comic timing, and quirky sex appeal, I made sure to check it out when it first emerged, despite reservations over the likely avalanche of self-referentiality. 30 Rock began at the high-water mark (God willing) of hipster snark, and I was worried that it would grow too toxic too quick. If anything, the opposite proved true; for all its cleverness, the show is often strikingly old-fashioned. My relief may have made me a little complacent, and my decision not to "digitize" during the 2009 changeover led me away from the show until my hibernation this winter and decision to further explore the sitcom.
Liz Lemon (Fey), veteran of Chicago's famed Second City improv troupe, is head writer for The Girlie Show, a Saturday Night Live simulacrum on NBC (in Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza, hence "30 Rock") suffering from low ratings. Her hangdog producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) generally lurks on hand to help with the increasingly diva-like behavior of star (and Liz's friend from the old days) Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), as well as the obstreperousness and laziness of the writing staff, including metaphorically basement-dwelling slob Frank Rositano (Judah Friedlander) and snooty Harvard man James "Twofer" Spurlock (Keith Powell). Any menial jobs can be easily delegated to pathologically cheerful page Kenneth Parsell (Jack McBrayer), a starstruck transplant from the Georgia hills (with an increasingly mystifying story arc). The template shatters when GE decides to make its child company pay a little more of its way and sends husky-voiced executive shark Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) to shake things up by personally supervising the show, hiring variably certifiable black comic Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan)--star of Fat Bitch and Who Dat Ninja?, accompanied by stalwart entourage Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot-Com (Kevin Brown)-- to boost ratings, and renaming the show TGS with Tracy Jordan. Jenna feels threatened by Tracy's popularity, Liz frustrated with Jack's interfering, and things surely can't end well.
Five years later, TGS is still on, having successfully weathered a hundred episodes, the same writing staff, a few new (fake) cast members, an abortive Janis Joplin (or "Jackie Jormp-Jormp" due to rights restrictions) biopic, Liz's near-transformation into a ghastly, The Rules-spouting daytime thug, something like eight jillion of Liz and Jack's boyfriends and girlfriends, and NBC's sale to "Kabletown." The only apparent wrinkle is that Jack's wife, MSNBC conservative commentator Avery Jessup (a hilariously waspish Elizabeth Banks) has been detained as a spy by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il (Margaret Cho, in what I thought a hilarious reference to Team America: World Police). Answers to any lingering questions will begin to arrive this Thursday night at 8 pm Eastern. The road in between felt like a long, funny rollercoaster, with steady heights towards the beginning and regular peaks and troughs ever after. I watched all of 30 Rock on Netflix starting around Christmas, and the experience--one continuous story, anchored around a few main characters, over almost 102 half-hour episodes (the 100th being the hour-long exception)--left me more than a little exhausted. After each bout, I would feel that maybe 30 Rock was starting to grow stale and tired, but on each return, I was surprised at how much I wanted to see the storylines resolved, and how much I wanted the characters to be happy (a forlorn hope--none of these people will ever be happy, apart from Kenneth, and he has little choice in the matter).
The witty, touching relationship between Liz and Jack lies at the show's heart. It's little surprise, as one of the most successfully portrayed platonic friendships in TV history centers around two of the most endearing and complex characters on American television at present. Liz, the liberal, metropolitan single woman in her thirties, has little in common with Jack, the conservative, high-flying aspiring plutocrat hitting his half-century, but they both come to respect and even love each other in ways that feel neither stale nor contrived. It seems to start out with Liz recognizing Jack's essential loneliness (like Stephen Root's Mr. James on NewsRadio, he seems to get a kick out of hanging around the show that doesn't exist in his "outer life"), and Jack recognizing Liz's (often quite explicit) potential for ruthlessness. Both, too, are transplants in New York, Liz from Pennsylvania's coal country, and Jack from South Boston. Their pasts often come back to haunt them in various ways, e.g. Liz in visits from her father (a perfectly cast Buck Henry) and Jack in an unexpected dalliance with a high school classmate (a "wicked haahd" Julianne Moore). There are strong roots, but it's hard to describe the flowers as they develop. For me, it's enough that they're there. The perfect casting of Fey and Baldwin certainly doesn't hurt; both have won well-deserved Emmys for their work on the show, and it's all doubly entertaining for those who remember Baldwin's hilariously intense work in action films earlier in his career. By the time Avery suggests that maybe they're both too involved in too weird a way, "Liz and Jack" is far too elemental a concept to ever destroy.
As with the American version of The Office, one of the show's great strengths is the length to which it explores the talents and backstories of the supporting cast. Jane Krakowski--though cast in place of first choice, Fey's SNL castmate Rachel Dratch (who shows up in assorted parts throughout the show, especially in the first series)--is brilliant as Jenna, using her Broadway background to give TGS' original star just the right blend of actual talent and comical self-delusion (she would have been perfect as my former boss Fluffy, even if the latter looked more like Greta Gerwig--if the mumblecore goddess tried out for one of those Real Housewives reality shows). On paper, Tracy Jordan is largely a collection of insane speech, but Morgan somehow manages to knit it together to make it seem like it comes from a real character. The closest thing to a "Mary Sue" on the show is Pete, but Adsit's manic melancholy drives that one south double-time, especially given the existential sadness that lies in his forced catchphrase. Kenneth (McBrayer is arguably one of the show's breakout performers) can be seen as both a celebration and criticism of Southern mores, and a cautionary tale against watching too much television. Even the minor supporting characters shine. Twofer's opening discomfort with Tracy's hiring (a proud black Ivy Leaguer, he resents what he sees as Tracy's reinforcement of negative black stereotypes--the latter bad enough to provoke Tracy's claims that the NAACP tried to have him assassinated) eventually leads the show to humorously explore racial issues in comedy. Frank's unhygenically dissolute lifestyle conceals a surprisingly ambitious past revealed in an unexpectedly touching (if part-ironic) episode in which his mom tries to interfere in his life once again. Dot-Com's position in Tracy's entourage conceals an extensive background in classical drama. In a great moment, Tracy freaks out when Dot-Com auditions for an opening on TGS because, in a long ago performance of Chekhov's The Seagull at Wesleyan Art Space, "he became Trigorin!" I wouldn't be surprised if that was a Python in-joke. By the end of the fifth season, though, my personal favorite (and unexpected crush) was the silent yet formidable Franco-Dutch Sue LaRoche-Van Der Hoot (Sue Galloway), whose backstory is so ridiculous that I don't want to potentially spoil it even in writing about a show with such an endless variety of gags and stories.
The care for the characters is all the more impressive when it's considered that they're all basically cartoons (almost literally, in Kenneth's case). My friend Tara watched the DVD commentary for an episode in Season 3 guest-starring Alan Alda, and he observed that all the characters basically speak and act directly from their subconscious. The result, as one might imagine, is a gloriously satirical view of the world, with a sharp edge that sets it well apart from a show like Parks and Recreation (with a vaguely "Liz-Jack" relationship in Leslie and Ron that feels different largely for that very reason). Where the characters of Parks and Rec are just barely positive (even Jean-Ralphio), those of 30 Rock are all just barely negative. They're all vaguely venal or delusional enough for their follies to define them, and as such, it's all a perfect metaphor for America in the aughties.
The satire extends to the show's wider universe. There's probably no other show that better portrays the fundamental absurdity of American life over the past decade. FOX shows like Arrested Development and The OC (both set in Newport Beach, California) lacerated the extremely wealthy in various ways, while NBC sitcoms like Parks and Rec or Community (Donald Glover, who plays the latter's fallen sports star Troy Barnes, was a story editor, writer, and occasional performer for 30 Rock) explore the lives of the middle and working classes through the framing devices of small-town government and continuing education. 30 Rock, on the other hand, sits at the nexus of entertainment and politics, embodying the general character of American life in the G-Dub and Obma years. The TGS crew's postmodern illusion of "soft" power is consistently outmatched by the real power of Jack's political connections, and the results are depressingly hilarious to behold. The absurdity of corporate politics constantly arises with every mention of NBC's immediate organizational superior: the Sheinhardt Wig Company. The fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of modern American conservatism exposes itself when Jack briefly serves in the Bush administration, and his department turns out to be a fly-by-night outfit where his colleague "Cooter" (Matthew Broderick) firmly denies the existence of water leaks that are plainly visible. The show's politically liberal critique lasts into the Tea Party era, when Jack sponsors likeminded goon Steven Austin (John Slattery) into running against troublesome Congresswoman Regina Bookman (Queen Latifah), and his white knight takes to building couch forts in his office and suggesting the reintroduction of slavery.
At least one commentator on Cookdandbombd (an Anglo-Irish comedy web forum), though, accused 30 Rock of being conservative, in that it preached knuckling under and following the status quo. This is true in the sense that 30 Rock will never be, say, a film by Ken Loach or John Sayles, but it does pretty well for what it is (hate that phrasing though I do). If anything, it's all the more realistic in portraying a world in which Jack's values generally win out, and in which good (or -ish) people have to make do. One aspect of Liz's framing is a case in point for this complexity. There's been criticism I've seen on other sites (can't remember where, probably CAB or Jezebel) where Liz's alleged "unattractiveness" comes in for brickbats. Fey herself is gorgeous, and the idea that a simple pair of glasses makes one an ugly duckling is indeed straight out of She's All That. The question, though, is pretty directly addressed early on in Season 1, when Liz goes with boyfriend Floyd (SNL's Jason Sudeikis) on a visit to Cleveland (a fun moment for this former Akron resident). People start to ask if she's a model and tell her to eat more. Jenna's take? "We're *all* models west of the Alleghenies, Liz." It's a great satire on elitist arrogance and the bizarre tightrope that women have to walk (Liz's presence in the age old narrative "family or career?" is reflected in the ludicrous aesthetic demands society makes on women). Everything in New York becomes more extreme, and this surrealist contradiction-heightening gives 30 Rock its special tone and makes it the brilliant, occasionally infuriating embodiment of NBC that will return this Thursday.