Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1 of 30 Rock

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 27, 2007

“For God’s sake, Lemon, we’d all like to flee to the Cleve, and club up and down in the Flats, and have lunch with Little Richard. But we fight those urges…”

About half a year ago, America was presented with two TV shows with a fairly similar premise–the behind-the-stage workings at a fictional sketch comedy show. One of them was engineered by Sports Nite and West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin and featured seasoned TV vets like Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield and Steven Weber. The other (premiering a few weeks later) was penned by and starring mostly SNL alums, one of whom was Rachel Dratch, and featured Alec Baldwin in a leading, comedic role.

If you had asked 100 people back in September which show was going to end up a cancelled flop, and which was going to be an award-winning cult success, at least 90 of them probably would’ve gotten it wrong, including myself. Really, though. From the first episode of Studio 60, it looked like we had the next great TV show on our hands–smart, tight writing with good characters played by good actors. But it turned out Sorkin didn’t quite have the stomach to take on TV, for whatever reason–instead of the backstage seaminess and drama everyone would expect from a show about the medium, we got a lot of preachiness and unrealistic moral dilemmas, played out by characters who just seemed to like each other too much.

On the other hand, the odds on 30 Rock not completely sucking were so very, very low. The commercials looked awful, it was the brainchild of SNL people (which might sound like a good thing to some people, but me, not so much) and after the initially promising debut of Studio 60, it just seemed totally pointless. But the show’s growing buzz, combined with that great Thursday night NBC timeslot, finally persuaded me to give it a shot.

And goddamn if it didn’t turn out to be quite possibly the funniest show on TV right now. 30 Rock actually inspires genuine laughter–not just reflexive “oh, I recognize that as being funny” chuckles, but the hearty guffaws I usually reserve for animated classics like The Simpsons and prime Adult Swim. It’s refreshing, to say the least, and when paired with The Office and My Name is Earl, shows which at their best can easily encourage similar emissions, it makes for the most enjoyable TV block since The O.C. was partnered with North Shore on Thursday nights (hey, I liked it!)

It’s mostly due to the actors. The core of the show is in the relationship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, played of course by Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, and TV critics smarter than myself have compared their rapport to that of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore. It’s a good comparison–the relationship is driven by the same sort of frustration and tempered affection, mixed with just the right amount of sexual tension–not so much that you could ever see them impulsively throwing down on Jack’s desk, but enough that a misguided hook-up is always a possibility, however slight.

And the actors get their parts just right–Tina Fey does have that sort of “She’s gonna make it after all!” sympathy behind her performance, and she plays the quirky, frazzled Lemon right to the point of irritation without ever quite passing it (her karaoke performance of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” while supposedly trying to pick up dudes at a bar was an early clincher in the series for me). And Alec Baldwin deserved his Golden Globe for playing the eccentic, intimidating, and frequently childlike multi-millionaire–he’s got the perfect command of the character’s ridiculousness, and more importantly, how he expects everyone else to be on his ridiculous level of thinking. When Liz asks Jack why he’s dressed up if the benefit she thought she was prepping for for tonight actually isn’t for months, his incredulous response of “It’s after 6:00! What am I, a farmer?” could’ve gotten him the award on its own.

And of course, the show’s always got an ace up its sleeve in the form of unpredictably manic and heavily medicated TGS star Tracy Jordan (not to be confused with Tracy Morgan, who plays him). Even if recent morning TV interviews suggest that the difference between actor and character might not be so different after all, Tracy is hilarious, and the episode with his medicine-related meltdown leading up to his appearance on Conan O’Brien is probably the show’s highlight thusfar. And at the very least, Tracy offers 30 Rock an opportunity to come up with a ton of hilarious fictional movies for Tracy to star in, including Who Dat Ninja? and Fat Bitch (the poster for which makes me crack up every time).

And they’ve got a strong supporting cast at their back. Jane Krakowski doesn’t have too much to do as show bombshell Jenna, but she plays up the dumb blonde angle well enough to make a worthy foil for Liz (and her misguided projects outside of 30 Rock are usually similarly hysterical, especially Con Air! The Musical), and Rachel Dratch…well, let’s just say the show’s learned enough to use her more sparingly, and in less obvious caricatures, thank God. But then there’s Judah Friedlander as trucker hat-wearing loser Frank (a table describing his hats’ colors and messages per week can be found here, for some reason), Scott Adsit as down-to-earth miserablist Pete, and especially, Jack McBrayer as overenthusiastic and effeminate page Kenneth (who has definite breakout potential, which I hope they don’t exploit too much next season).

Then there’s the cameos–from LL Cool J as rapper Ridikolous (who I really hope they bring back at least once more–his non-chalant command to one of his goons “Yo, go get my nose back” after Kenneth “steals” it is a Top 5er for the show, easy), to Isabella Rossellini as Jack’s similarly cutthroat ex-wife to Chris Parnell as Tracy’s (I imagine soon to become recurring) nutso physician, Dr. Spaceman (pronounced Spah-chey-man, unbeknwondst to Tracy). Even Ghostface Killah shows up a couple times.

As with similar broadcast TV high point Friday Night Lights, the future of 30 Rock is far from secure–it consistently ranks in the 70s ratings-wise, despite critical acclaim and plum positioning. But I think the word of mouth is really spreading on the show, and hopefully viewers who were as skeptical as I was at the start of the first season will start to tune in. I mean, c’mon, people–Ghostface!

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3 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1 of 30 Rock”

  1. BOB said

    IMO, This show sucks!!! The only reason I record it is for Rachel Dratch! It’s so exciting to see where and how she will show up next.

  2. Anton said

    I agree. Rachel Dratch is muy caliente. I wish she were my girlfriend.

  3. Are you people NUTS??!! Andrew is so right…30 Rock ROCKS!!! For once, NBC made a good decision and green-lighted a second season. (Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.) The suits should nevertheless be flogged for cancelling ANDY BARKER prematurely. Talk about a show that needed some time to find its audience…

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