Sunday, November 23, 2008

TV: Tina Fey to the lido deck, Tina Fey to . . .

Last week, we offered that 30 Rock was a comedy form of The Love Boat. We didn't know, we just didn't know.

Along with losing 200,000 viewers since the week before (which would be 1.2 million viewers lost since the season premiere), the failed and failing sitcom basically utilized thirty minutes of network time to elaborate on the point we had made last week. In fact, you could practically hear Tina Fey sing during the opening:

Freaks, exciting and new

Come aboard, we're expecting you

Thursday's freak was Steve Martin. He followed in the footsteps of this season's other freaks Megan Mullally, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston. And, to be clear, we're not calling the performers "freaks" -- well, except for Oprah, we aren't -- we're referring to what their role was in the weekly disaster someone wants you to believe is a plot.

Megan kicked things off playing a lunatic woman sent in to assess Liz Lemon's skills as a parent since Fey's decided the 'feminist' thing to do would be to turn her career gal Liz into a walking 'biological clock.' It's was like watching one of those rare thirty-something episodes that feigned interest in Melissa Steadman. Liz didn't pass the test so there was no point to the guest spot that took up the bulk of the show. Did we say Steadman? Maybe we meant Stedman? Oprah showed up for the second installment playing a faded name whose looks had faded far beyond hagged out and ragged out. Sadly, friends with the show told us that was how she now looks and no special make up was utilized. In that case, a freak played a freak. That led to Jennifer Aniston being a good sport and playing the "psycho" two weeks ago allowing Steve Martin to play the con man Gavin pretending to suffer from agoraphobia while actually he was under house arrest for assorted charges including racketeering.

The week before "psycho" Jennifer hiked up her boobs and went after Jack (Alec Baldwin) and, in what Fey must think passes for 'equality,' this week found her own character passed off by Jack to Gavin who would, as Liz bragged, feel up her own boobs. Progress!

Gavin was a convict under house arrest and, no, Steve Martin's career fortunes haven't so greatly fallen that he's been reduced to TV regular. Translation, the whole 'plot' added up to nothing. Nothing lasting, nothing that impacted the character, nothing that was even remotely realistic and, most importantly, nothing that was humorous or even qualified for 'comedy adjacent.'

NBC's noticed that as well. They've noticed the fall off in viewers. For those who've forgotten, Fey's sexist and bitchy 'portrayal' of Alaska's governor Sarah Palin made her a star and her faltering a sitcom a hit.

Or that's what the Water Cooler Set was insisting while passing their half-baked predictions off as certifiable facts.

Remember when they insisted that Studio Yada Yada was the greatest thing to happen to TV since Lucille Ball? Yeah, their current embarrassment factor is equal to that embarrassment. Membership in the Water Cooler Set doesn't just mean never learning how to dress (hello, NYT's Docker Boys!), it also means never learning (period).

Despite the fact that female performers, producers and writers told us bitchy doesn't bring stardom for females attempting comedy, despite the fact that Tina Fey's bad impersonation got worse each time she attempted it, the Water Cooler Set was doing whatever the effete equivalent of a head-butt is over and over while insisting, "Fey rocks! She's a rock star! This is her year!"

The Water Cooler Set at Entertainment Weekly picked her as runner up for 2008's entertainer of the year and the objection is not that she was only runner up, it's that she's even on the list at all. $63 million domestic box office of Baby Mama didn't make Tina a star and wouldn't have this decade, last decade or in the 80s. In fact, she'd have to set the way back machine to 1977 for that meager box office take to qualify as stardom. When speaking to one friend at EW, he felt the need to insist that this is all a bit like Time magazine's person of the year -- not about enduring talent, but who had the 'impact.' And Tina, he insists, had 'impact.'

"People believe," he pointed out, "that Palin actually said she could see Russia from her front porch."

What an accomplishment, what a 'credit': The Fabulist Fey.

He did note another 2008 'accomplishment,' looking increasingly 'wan.' And how thin and pointy her nose had begun to look. Why was that?

Well it wasn't so she could rub it up and down inside the egg and prepare to hatch. It had to do with the weight gain the 'boys' of the Water Cooler Set missed. In fairness, some of them noticed but were thrilled with the increased breast size as well as Tina's desire to flaunt her body in various cheesecake poses. We're not, for example, remembering either Lily Tomlin or Gilda Radner posing for a magazine cover with their ass stuck in the air.

Fey was the one behind the glasses, the sexy buttoned down woman. The sexy because she was smart woman. Those days are long gone and she's so trashed her image that we half expect her next 'clever' 'parody' tor result in her half-naked before the camera, promoting Harry & David's Fancy Fruit Spreads with a 'send-up' of Sharon Stone's infamous Basic Instinct scene.

Somehow (shh, no rumors), Tina finally ended up with breasts and she's very eager to alert the world to their emergence hence the half-dressing she gives them in photo session after photo session. And to make sure the brainy image is in the trash can, she tosses aside the glasses (which only makes her eyes appear too far apart).

We offered the EW-er a counter-argument, Tina Fey was The Backlash Entertainer of 2008. She went from appearing sexy and intelligent to a busty airhead. She went from someone known for sharp observational skills to an actress spilling out of her blouse and pulling up her skirt for laughs. She went from a role model applauded by many feminists (including, at one time, us) to starring in an eighties throw-back movie about a woman who must, must, must have a baby. We pointed out that prior to giving birth (September 2005), Fey wasn't obsessed with babies but once she had one, suddenly it was very important for her to portray women as desperate for them. We considered her similar, in that regard, to a starlet or twink on the five-factor diet and babbling away incessantly about glycemic index.

In one year, she's demonstrated she wants to be seen as just another piece of ass (aged ass, but ass none the less), that she will embrace any retro backlash attack on women and, most importantly, that she's lost the ability to laugh at herself or others.

The joy, like the intelligence, got squeezed right out of Fey. And you're left with an anti-feminist on auto-pilot attempting to demonstrate just how much damage she can do.

A great deal. For example, Thursday night managed to go the full half-hour without ever showing co-star Jane Krakowski. It was Fey, Fey, All About Fey. So much so that when Katrina Bowden's Cherie was finally given her one-line for the episode, we felt as if we'd been watching Mr. Skeffington. And while that reference and observation delighted our EW-friend, we knew it wouldn't play with NBC which really doesn't give a damn about the way women are represented on TV.

But what NBC does care about is ratings. They don't know from funny and assume, most of the time, that they're just missing the joke. But they know how to squint at the overnights. And though they can't figure out why, they know America's sour-heart Tina Fey has not become a 'breakout star' or even a 'star.'

They're fully aware the show will never again get the kind of build-up (blather) it got as the Water Cooler Set treated Fey like a comedic goddess for her bad Palin impersonation. Week after week, that crowd dropped her name with such desperation you'd think they were leaving their Lubys, Dennys and Golden Corrals behind and attempting to get a table at XIV. When hype doesn't create stardom -- as many a Van Fair 90s cover subject can testify -- the career's over. Your heat vanishes, your descent begins. The press that acted as your own personal public relations outfit suddenly doesn't want to know you because you committed the worst of all sins: You exposed their ignorance.

So this was Tina's big shot, 2008 was it. Fall 2008 was specifically it for 30 Rock. And NBC grasps that did not work out. They also instinctively know something is off with the show and we were asked specifically about our Love Boat criticism Friday afternoon. What were we saying there?

We are saying that four episodes -- four bad episodes -- have aired so far this year and each has heavily featured guest stars while the regular characters -- that would be the ones the audience actually tunes in for -- have done little to nothing. Each week, Tina and Alec make like Julie McCoy and Captain Stubing, greet a guest star, turn the episode over to him or he and then show up for little nothing scenes.

Regular characters are what is supposed to sell a TV series. But 30 Rock viewers can sit through entire episodes without seeing some cast members featured at all. Guest stars can improve or pull down a show. Of all the NBC sitcoms, Will & Grace utilized them most heavily. But the bulk of the time, with a Glenn Close or Matt Damon, they were used wisely. (Contrast that with Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez who had no real purpose for being on the show.) They advanced the plots -- short-term and long-term -- and they interacted with the characters. 30 Rock basically turns each week over to a guest star. And if the guest star's lucky, like Aniston, they come off as good sports. If they're not lucky, they come off extremely foolish. That's because the scripts are so poorly thought out and so badly written.

And they just get worse and worse each week to the point that the regular characters no longer seem eccentric, they seem cartoonish and when Kevin can lose $4,000 in a minor subplot ($4,000 that was supposed to go home to his family) and not even break a sweat, the audience cares less and less.

"You do realize," we asked, "that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was able to feature a guest spot with Betty Ford and still construct a full-blown episode where the regular characters got to shine?"

We were losing them. So we flipped over to the losing audience, to the 1.2 million lost since the first episode this year.

"You do grasp that when something's judged a dingo dog with fleas, no big names want to appear?"

That they grasped. And they began making jokes about Fey turning future episodes over to the likes of Anson Williams and Todd Bridges. They joked that Sandy Duncan would get a multi-arc story as Lemon's aunt from out of town. And as their laughter died down, The Love Boat comparison truly sank in.

30 Rock was never a hit series. But a lot of people rooted for it to be one. Note the past tense. That's true of NBC today as well. Who wants to be the one explaining in May 2009 that 30 Rock's cancelled due to low ratings? That's the only thing that might allow it to run through the year with no improvements: The fact that it should have been cancelled some time ago. When the axe falls, the question will be, "Why did it take so long?" If Fey had any intelligence left, she'd work like crazy to quickly improve the show. She'd ditch the guest stars and bring the show back to the characters that were supposed to pull in audiences to begin with.

Otherwise, get ready to sing . . .

30 Rock soon will be making another run

30 Rock promises something for everyone

Set a course for adventure

Your mind on a new romance . . .


Note that Fey and her faltering ratings are the topic of Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "Bitchy Tina Fey", Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "Ghosts of Network Bombs Past and Present" and Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "Tina Fey: America's Sour-Heart".

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