by pat howard

Why I love ’30 Rock’

In 30 Rock on January 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm

With last night’s Golden Globe wins, 30 Rock has certainly cemented its status as a critical and industry favorite. It’s one of those “best shows you’re not watching.” Like other shows with this distinction, 30 Rock is hard to categorize because it doesn’t exactly fit in any one box. This makes people uncomfortable somehow.

It is safe to argue that the genius of this show and the genesis of its format-busting rests with creator and star Tina Fey, who got used to wearing multiple hats and working in a crazy environment during her tenure at Saturday Night Live, not to mention her years of improv and theater work. That’s the background she brings to the show. She didn’t work her way up the ranks of sitcom writer’s rooms. She comes from a variety and stage background.

So it’s perhaps not fair to lump 30 Rock in with a sitcom like The New Adventures of Old Christine, because they’re doing two different things. Christine is telling traditional linear sitcom stories which keep at least one foot planted in reality. 30 Rock took the sitcom outline, filled in some characters, then doodled on it in crayon and refused to stay inside the lines. 30 Rock is a more polished, stylized, fully realized SNL.

This is one reason I won’t join critics who complain about its ever-present stunt casting. Think of each week’s guest star as analogous to the SNL host, an outsider temporarily and often deftly brought into the fold. While not every celebrity’s character works out (Jennifer Aniston), the success rate (Oprah, Elaine Stritch) is much higher and more reliable than that of SNL hosts (Michael Phelps, anyone?).

As an innovative hybrid, 30 Rock should be compared to other comedy/variety programs, in which case it’s much better than, say, the now-cancelled Mad TV. 30 Rock is a live-action Muppet Show, a Smothers Brothers on ADD for generations that grew up on — and grew impatient with — the neat little boxes into which entertainment partitions itself.

It is difficult even to compare 30 Rock to other series set behind the scenes of a television show. 30 Rock relies on show-within-a-show TGS because it lends credence to the oddball characters who could only get away with such shenanigans in the business of show.

Murphy Brown was groundbreaking, but for entirely different reasons. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip took a similar behind-the-scenes-at-SNL approach, stripped out the comedy, and spectacularly failed to live up to the lofty ideals it laid out for itself. And can anyone imagine Lou Grant giving Mary Richards medication that “may cause…sexual nightmares”?

It is probable that, as with every generation, the cutting-edge material has a limited appeal. The most subversive shows historically tend to appeal to a younger crowd. Ben Silverman is probably right that 30 Rock is something of a watershed moment in the glacial shift of TV audience measurement. It’s no breakout hit in primetime, but when you throw in online streaming, digital sell-through, and DVD sales, the material is getting in front of millions of eyeballs.

There’s a lot wrong with American television, but as both entertainment and an art form, 30 Rock is proof that talented people can produce quality television in reverse proportion to the amount of interference they have from network suits.

Like any groundbreaking art, 30 Rock will probably not be fully appreciated (at least by the public at large) until long after it is out of production. But it serves as a scintillating time capsule, simultaneously a scathing indictment of and valentine to what the television industry has become.

  1. Seriously? I try as hard as I can not to be a flamer, but how could a sane person write this drivel?
    The only logical conclusion is that you are, in fact, Tina freakin’ Fey…

  2. Ignoring the previous commenter (kip)…

    I would have to agree with what you have to say about “30 Rock.” I am continually surprised to hear that everyone is not tuning in to watch… I mean I do, and have since it began airing! (I say that tounge in cheek, because of course everyone should watch if I do.) “30 Rock” has something special, and the character development has evolved to near perfection over the seasons. There is a certain chemistry between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin that is priceless. Studio 60 didn’t just fail due to no humor, it also had no charisma which is a shame given the amount of talent the show had. Such potential, never realized.

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