March 13, 2007

30 Rocks: Peacock Network’s Hidden Gem

Print More

Devin Gordon, author of a recent article in Newsweek titled, “Why TV Is Better Than the Movies,” only confirms what I’ve been saying for years. It may be strange to suggest it’s a problem, but there aren’t enough free hours in the week to keep up with so many great shows. That’s why it’s necessary to be discriminating in choosing which shows to follow regularly and which to place on the summer “to watch” list when the latest seasons’ DVDs get released. Two comedies have been “must-see-TV” this year. One of them is of course The Office and the other is 30 Rock.

Last fall when NBC rolled out its new lineup, much discussion revolved around Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock because of the shows’ similar premises: the backstage depiction of a variety show not unlike Saturday Night Live. Studio 60 boasted the talents of Aaron Sorkin and a stellar cast while 30 Rock featured SNL alums Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan and the always popular Alec Baldwin. While both have been ratings challenged and benched by NBC as of late, it would be a great shame if 30 Rock gets cancelled. Although I love Aaron Sorkin’s work tremendously, I won’t cry too much if Studio 60 fails to get picked up for a second season.

Since their premieres, 30 Rock has only gotten funnier while Studio 60 has been stuck in a mire of soapy relationship plots and poor chemistry between actors. It might be unfair to compare the two since 30 Rock is a half-hour sitcom while Studio 60 is an hour-long “dramedy,” but 30 Rock is better at what it sets out to do. It’s not a didactic appraisal on the state of entertainment nor does it have aspirations of importance. 30 Rock is just very funny and that’s a hard enough task for any show to accomplish.

Indicative of each series relative success is how they depict their show-within-a-show. On Studio 60, writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) is hired in the pilot episode because of his comedic genius. However, the sketches on Studio 60 have been awful, not even worthy of the post-Weekend Update slots. Sorkin’s past work has demonstrated his comedic skill, but he can’t hack it as a sketch writer. A lot of humor on 30 Rock comes from the self-consciously bad sketches, hardly ever seen, but merely suggested by discussions in the writers’ room or the P.A. announcing rehearsals. If depicted, the sketches feature random Conan O’Brien-style comedy concepts like robots fighting bears or characters like “Gaybraham Lincoln.” 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show would never actually be successful in primetime, but that’s part of the joke.

When discussing 30 Rock’s brilliance, it would be criminal not to mention the great Alec Baldwin. There’s very little left to say about Alec Baldwin that hasn’t been said by every other critic in the nation. He has the unique ability to bring joy by his mere presence and make comedy out of almost any dialogue. His pompous Jack Donaghy, NBC’s Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Programming, might give Steve Carell’s Michael Scott a-run-for-his-money as TV’s most entertaining boss.

Tina Fey demonstrates her acting ability as Liz Lemon, 30 Rock’s straight woman who can’t balance work and romance. Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan, the out of control movie star hired to boost ratings in the pilot episode, is pretty much like every other crazy Morgan character from Brian Fellow to Astronaut Jones but is still hilarious. Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth might be the break-out star as the well-meaning, but naïve NBC network page.

It’s also nice to see 30 Rock utilize SNL talent with many players, both former and current, turning up as guest stars. My favorite is Chris Parnell as Dr. Leo Spaceman who might be the live action version of The Simpson’s Dr. Nick. Recently Jason Sudeikis has flexed his acting muscle as a potential love interest for Liz.

Replacing 30 Rock in its Thursday night timeslot for six weeks is the new Andy Richter comedy Andy Barker P.I., co-produced by Conan O’Brien. NBC’s posted every episode online and on iTunes in an effort to generate interest and judging by the pilot alone, the show has potential. Andy Barker P.I. joins other detective shows like Monk and Psych in portraying a private investigator with a quirk. Instead of having O.C.D. or supposed psychic abilities, Richter’s Andy Barker is an earnest, well-meaning C.P.A. turned accidental detective. Those familiar with O’Brien’s work might find shades of Lookwell, his never picked-up 1991 pilot starring Adam West as a has-been actor turned detective that can be downloaded off

I’d hate to root for a show’s failure, but it would be a terrible waste for 30 Rock to disappear. If that means the demise of Andy Barker P.I., so be it. It’s a point often made, but some of the most popular shows in television history needed a few seasons before they found an audience. Even The Office, now NBC’s critically acclaimed comedy, struggled a bit before becoming popular. But critical acclaim is not enough as Arrested Development proved. If you haven’t seen 30 Rock, you should catch-up by legal or illegal means.