Thursday, September 23, 2010

30 Rock Is Funny In Its First Season, But It's Still More Average Than Exceptional.

The Good: Very funny, Witty, Decent character development
The Bad: Surprisingly light on great acting, Light on DVD bonus features, Somewhat repetitive.
The Basics: A good first season of television, 30 Rock appears on DVD as a less ambitious program than I expected, though it is solidly funny.

A few years back, those who were tired of Saturday Night Live had a chance to get something truly fresh to fill the need the dismal cast of the sketch comedy show had left them with. No, it wasn't Mad TV, though as Saturday Night Live fell into decline, often Mad TV picked up the comedy slack; it was the appearance on television of not one, but two scripted comedy shows about people working on a series like Saturday Night Live. There was Aaron Sorkin’s oft-neglected, highly political return-to-television, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and there was 30 Rock. My love of the works of Aaron Sorkin had me watching the former and it wasn't until recently that I decided to watch 30 Rock.

The choice to pick up 30 Rock Season 1 on DVD was a pretty simple one. My wife and I have gotten in several movies and television series’ of late and with each new preview she has seen of 30 Rock, she has reiterated that she always laughs at them and that we ought to see if it is truly that good. So, now that we have watched the entire first season of the show, I am left to evaluate it. While 30 Rock was funny and generally enjoyable, it was not as incredibly audacious as many people who recommended the show to me made it seem like it was.

30 Rock, which gets its title from the New York City address of NBC is a satirical look at the behind-the-scenes antics of the staff of a late-night sketch comedy show called “The Girlie Show.” The first season focuses heavily on executive producer and head writer Liz Lemon and her show being taken in a very different direction from what she is comfortable with.

As the series opens, the good-natured but unrealistic Liz Lemon returns to her NBC offices to learn that Jack Donaghy, of parent company GM, has been promoted to Head of Microwave and East Coast Programming and is now her boss. She meets with Jack and learns that Jack is both a little crazy and looking to be more hands-on in the day-to-day management of the show. His first big change is renaming “The Girlie Show” “T.G.S.” and having Liz hire the erratic comedian, Tracy Jordan. After a day of getting to know him, Tracy appears on-air and “T.G.S. “ looks like it might become a ratings winner for the key male demographic that has been missing!

The cast and crew is very unsure of how Tracy’s arrival will affect the show, so he throws a party on a yacht for everyone. Following that disaster, Jack sets Liz up with a friend of his, who turns out to be a woman, the crew plays poker with one another (and Jack) and Jack makes a nuisance of himself by giving the writers notes during their daily meetings. Liz dates an old boyfriend, who attempts to manipulate Liz before she learns of his techniques from Jack. As the season progresses, Tracy’s antics get him in trouble with the black community and leave the paranoid actor on the run for his life. At the same time, Jack’s divorce becomes final and he becomes rapidly engaged to a very troubling woman!

30 Rock actually seems annoyingly familiar at points and those who love situational comedies are unlikely to truly be surprised by some of the jokes that are clearly intended to be the biggest of the season. Indeed, at least two of the plots are almost completely remakes of episodes of Sports Night with just minor differences. As well, there is an episode where Jack tails Kenneth, the page, and develops a new respect for him, much like the M*A*S*H episode “Boxing Day.” The point here is just that plotwise, 30 Rock in its first season is not terribly original.

That said, it is funny. One of the elements that works so well is the fact that the show is populated with two crazy characters in Jack and Tracy. This works well for the first season in that it upsets some of the typical “types.” In this case, the smartest character on the show has to appease both of the loose cannons and that makes for an interesting series of humorous twists. Arguably some of the best moments of the season are when Tracy and Jack share the stage, like when Jack uses his GE connections to develop a meat-cooker for Tracy to market and it turns out to be dangerous. The infomercial in that episode is absolutely hilarious, as is the initial meeting between Tracy and Jack.

What makes the first season more memorable than the plots are the characters who are moving the plots forward. In the first season, the principle characters include:

Liz Lemon – The beleaguered executive producer of “The Girlie Show” struggles with changes to her show that come from higher up the business end of NBC. She maintains her good nature, despite dating a loser and a black man who cannot believe that she does not like him for any reason other than his skin color. But when budget cuts allow her to sack the girlfriend of the guy she actually wants to be with, things start looking up. She is the calming presence on “TGS with Tracy Jordan,”

Tracy Jordan – A former movie star, the black actor turns to “The Girlie Show” to revitalize his career. At NBC, he brings his entourage with him and finds himself having a very difficult time fitting in with the predominately white cast. He is arguably crazy and when his sketches involving him dressing up as black women get him noticed by the black community, he goes on the run to try to keep from getting snuffed out,

Kenneth Parcell - The page at NBC, he starts by guiding tours, but soon becomes a curiosity to Jack, who sees potential in him. He has ideas for television shows that seem to be geared around him coming up with a series title and expecting others to run with it. Arguably the nicest guy, Kenneth is the punching back for just about everyone,

Pete Hornberger - The director of “The Girlie Show,” he is a friend to Liz and has a marriage that is on the rocks. He is tempted by Tracy’s hedonism to cheat on his wife and Kenneth sets out to save his marriage. He misses out on his anniversary which forces him to move in with Liz,

Frank Rossitano – One of the writers, he constantly wears ridiculous hats and is deeply sarcastic. Even Frank is offended when one of the writers calls Liz the “c” word,

Jenna Maroney – The star of “The Girlie Show,” she is upset when Tracy Jordan arrives. She uses her sexuality to try to keep her job. She is an old friend of Liz Lemon and when her movie, “The Rural Juror” is made, she finally realizes that Liz has never actually complimented one of her movie or theater projects,

Twofer – A writer on the show who is highly educated and is stymied by Tracy and Tracy’s style. Black and funny, he resists Tracy’s ridiculous tendencies and helps Frank write Tracy’s autobiography over the course of a night! He discovers his ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War and he is bothered by Tracy’s attempt to do a movie on the life of Thomas Jefferson,

Cerie – The office tease, she decides to get married, which disappoints most of the guys on the staff,

And Jack Donaghy – The crazy businessman, he loathes his mother, is fighting to get a divorce from his jealous wife and is eager to manage the entertainment branch of his business. He gets product placement into “TGS With Tracy Jordan” and he finds an unlikely new woman to become romantically involved with. He also tries to use Tracy to advance his own career with the highest executives at GE, with mixed results.

30 Rock in its first season is memorable, but those who love great television are more likely to be more neutral to it than constantly sing the praises of the show. The reason for that is simple; 30 Rock is more the product of great casting than good acting. Take, for example, Jane Krakowski, who plays Jenna. Krakowski plays Jenna virtually identically to her character of Elaine from Ally McBeal.  Yes, once more Krakowski is playing the blonde office slut and she does it with very little differentiation from her earlier role. Similarly, Alec Baldwin, who has amazing facial acting skills on 30 Rock is almost identical to his character from Clerks – The Animated Series in many of his deliveries. Even Tracy Morgan seems like he is doing some of the same shtick he did in Kevin Smith movies.

Arguably, though, 30 Rock is a Tina Fey vehicle and she is good as Liz Lemon. Sure, she is essentially playing her successful, but personally baffled character from Baby Mama, but she does it well. Fey plays smart and direct quite well and she makes her deliveries stick, making the first season of 30 Rock very watchable, if nothing else.

On DVD, 30 Rock features a handful of commentary tracks on episodes and a series of deleted scenes that are not exactly outrageously funny. The show holds up well with repeatability, so anyone who enjoys seeing the episodes once is likely to enjoy watching them over and over again on DVD. And while it is good, when the first season was done, more than wanting to catch the next season, I found myself wishing that there had been a second season of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

For other television shows, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek


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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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