Sunday, July 29, 2007

TV: The Troubles with 30 Rock

30 Rock airs at some point during NBC's Thursday primetime schedule. It's been all over the night. It's been dropped from the night (when Andy Barker, P.I. was being aired). At this point, it's a bit like a Linda Ronstadt cover of the Everly Brothers, wondering when it will be loved?

The show's problem are fairly simple, if not simple to fix. The chief problem with 30 Rock is that it is a funny show. You don't nod or half-smile at the whimsy. It's a laugh out loud sitcom -- the kind NBC once was able to produce at least twice a season but these days can only muster once.

It's second problem is probably the fact that it stars Tina Fey. That probably can't be fixed any more than the fact that it is actually funny because Fey created the show. It also shouldn't be fixed because Fey (remember, we're Tina-sters, though we prefer Fey-sters) is actually amazing in the role.

Let's talk the basics of the show. Tina Fey plays the lead character, Liz Lemon, who is the headwriter of TGS (formerly The Girly Show). It's a Saturday Night Live type show and, unlike Studio Yada Yada, the bits from the show within a show are actually funny. As headwriter of a live weekly TV show, she deals with assorted bits of drama week after week. Some of it is caused by Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming. (Yes, it is a joke about GE/NBC.) Some of it is caused by Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) whom Jack insists Liz hire in the show's first episode. Some of it is caused by writers working under Liz, some of it is caused by Liz' love interests and some of it is caused by Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski) who is Liz' best friend and, along with Tracy, the star of TGS.

All do a wonderful job as do others in the cast. But Fey's the one holding it together and doing so in a non-tour guide manner. This isn't "Look at the crazy folks I'm surrounded by." Liz Lemon is every much as crazy as everyone she works with.

This may best be seen in her relationship with former live-in love Dennis Duffy who manipulated and used her. When, in a three-story arc of episodes, Liz finally dumps Dennis, he shows up at her work, delivers a loud, self-serving goodbye which tricks her co-workers into thinking he's the special guy. Liz ends up doubting her own judgement and considers taking him back before catching a Dateline expose on internet predators and seeing Dennis attempt to set up sex with a 16-year-old. (Which also blew one of his pro-traits she listed, "Too lazy too cheat.") Though usually the sanest in the room, in a different room, with less crazy people, Liz would be the oddball. If that was murky at any point, Liz revealing the secret that she'd say was voting for Obama but actually vote for Senator Crazy (John McCain) in the 2008 presidential election should have cleared it right up.

Onscreen at Saturday Night Live, Fey largely avoided skits and stuck to Weekend Update. So it's no surprise that she can handle a one liner. That she's able to do physical comedy may be the revelation to some. Below the neck, there is a body and she uses it to comic effects in scenes such as when, after what seems like moments of holding a baby on the set, she finds herself, hours later, in her own apartment with the child.

Fey is not merely providing the glue that holds the series together, she's also providing a huge portion of the laughs.

So what went wrong? 30 Rock would have fit nicely into many a now forgotten Must See TV night. That was before NBC decided that, Jennifer Aniston, Helen Hunt and assorted others be damned, women weren't funny. In My Name Is Earl, you get the bitch of an ex-wife. In The Office, you get women who mainly exist to play uncomfortable (generally in wideshots, often background shots). Neither show is laugh out loud funny (though people try so hard to convince you otherwise) and along comes 30 Rock which is both funny and not afraid of women and it's a whole new dynamic.

What allowed the program to survive the first half of the season, as we noted here many times, was the Boys Club at the top of NBC deciding it was Alec Baldwin's show. They now see it as Fey's show. We'd gladly hail that as progress but the truth is Baldwin's since had some offscreen problems and they're less eager to cite him. Scrubs (a show we'd never have thought we'd find much of anything worthy of praise) returned to Thursdays and is actually a better fit with 30 Rock then the nonsense it was previously sandwiched between.

Moving at about four times the speed of either Earl or The Office, 30 Rock provides actual laughs and actual storylines. Those wishing for the death of TV (or at least the death of entertaining TV) got behind the non-entertaining shows and championed them. NBC bet the farm on them and the farm is now being paved over and turned into a strip mall but no one's supposed to notice. They've installed another boy's club boy and he's so hostile he's actually okayed a development deal with the imploding non-star Isaiah Washington. When you've repeatedly insulted gays (though not lesbians, his lesbian friend wants everyone to know and will take to any forum she can to sell the conspiracy that White gays lynched Washington) in public and on the set, and when you've come to blows with the male star of the TV show your tired ass was lucky to land a minor part on, a smart network boss knows there is no resurrection and knows they don't want to be tainted by your current problems; however, Ben Silverman just wants the world to know he's there to pick up the boys' bar tabs.

Which is our way of noting that this coming season is probably it for 30 Rock. Everyone at NBC knows it. Silverman's already made comments to that effect. (Though support for 30 Rock goes higher than Silverman.) He thinks it is sapping Thursday night's ratings.

Ratings? Does NBC want to talk ratings? The heavily pimped and promoted The Office was ranked 68 for the year. My Name Is Earl was ranked 58. These are hits? In whose lunatic mind? NBC is in the ratings toilet because it ran off viewers and part of that includes yelling "Funny!" when no ha-has were to be found. The racism in My Name Is Earl has only gotten more pronounced in season two so who knows what "joys" await in season three? The Office, meanwhile, goes from two talented cast members this fall to one (as one departs for Fox).

Scrubs and 30 Rock are paired with two shows which make one long for the comparative hilarity found in an episode of Veronica's Closet or even Caroline in the City. They are even worse than Union Park whose only crime was not being funny. The Office and My Name Is Earl repell viewers not just because they aren't funny but because they aren't shows most viewers are interested in. "They're funny because they're not funny," one NBC exec told us this weekend. When we asked if he really believed that, he admitted no but that was the company line. Ourselves, we think funny is the fact that a lot of suits don't see the pink slips coming.

We knew changes were coming at NBC and that was one of the reasons we held off on 30 Rock (whose support was always so high at the very top of the network that it would get a second season). We heard "big changes" but, when changes were finally made, they weren't really any change at all. Ben Silverman's younger than the other goons who have been running (ruining) the network but otherwise, he fits right in. He's the type who, if presented with the pilot of Friends, would have said, "The guys are great, but can we get rid of two of the girls?"

Which is why he fits in perfectly with NBC's boys club that has replaced the once forward looking executives who knew which shows to greenlight and how to market and schedule them so that they could be hits. 30 Rock isn't fitting. The only thing that will save it is viewers turning on and most aren't willing to wade through the crap it's surrounded with. (It's Tivo numbers are amazing.) In September, the first season comes out on DVD and that may pump up some interest. Another thing that could would be NBC using Saturday nights to air reruns and promote the show. They could do bloc reruns of the show's first season. They could advertise those reruns on the basis of the guest stars (Conan OBrien, Whoopi Goldberg, etc.).

But the fact remains that during the alleged death of the sitcom, 30 Rock is a funny show, a funny show that could hold its own when NBC knew from funny. These days, the network doesn't and they don't like women. That message has been received by viewers and it's why NBC has fallen from number one to fourth with even net-lette Fox beating it in the overall ratings. Industry word of mouth for Fox's fall line up is strong. NBC's? Remember when we told you The Bionic Woman was "on the crater"? To make sure it craters a little sooner, Isaiah Washington's been added to the cast.

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