Saturday, January 17, 2009

The One Where I Overthink Things and Tell NBC to Step Off


We all want our favorite shows to survive, and more often than not the good ones don’t. Award wins couldn’t save Arrested Development. Critical acclaim couldn’t save Freaks & Geeks. The list goes on, and often a lack of network support is to blame. That’s why it should be a positive thing that NBC is putting so much effort into keeping 30 Rock fully afloat, right? After all, 30 Rock is a brilliant comedy that has ‘classic’ stamped all over it. Latter, right. Former, wrong.

I’ve gushed about 30 Rock constantly, to anyone who will listen, since the pilot episode. Seriously, I cannot count the number of my friends who now possess DVD box sets of the show’s first two seasons. There’s no doubt it’s my favorite show on television, and no doubt that Tina Fey has ascended through my mental stratosphere as one of my celebrity patron saints (with Bowie and Warhol). So when I say this, you know it hurts. Let’s rip the band-aid off: 30 Rock is kinda losing it this season. I blame NBC’s cross-promotional efforts and the now over-the-top attempts to ingratiate the show into Hollywood’s web of mediocrity.

Allow me to attempt an explanation. Hit the jump.
In the beginning (for all of you who weren’t watching pre-Palin) 30 Rock came on the scene as a smart, irreverent ensemble workplace comedy. Yes, Fey’s Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy were stand-outs, but this was truly a show about chaos behind the scenes. Its characters were sharp. They knew who they were and had been crafted by a writer who understood them completely. Part of the show’s beauty was that each action, each line, made sense in context. We believed Kenneth’s backwoods naïveté, Tracy’s tendency towards showy insanity, Jenna’s desperate cries for attention, and Frank’s subdued douchebaggery. The supporting characters were vital, since they were the pieces that needed to be held together and dealt with by the slightly neurotic (but still in control) Liz Lemon.

If you’ve watched the show this season you know that the supporting cast has been largely dismissed in favor of weekly guest stars. We never get a story about Pete Hornberger’s issues with his marriage or the cast messing with Lutz. In fact, Hornberger, Lutz, Cerie, Toofer, Josh, Grizz, and Dot Com seem to have all but disappeared. And my god, I miss them. We’re lucky, these days, it seems to receive Tracy and Jenna at all, and usually their screen time is shared and, well, forced. (Last week’s episode pushed them towards getting soup for the crew…what?) Essentially, 30 Rock, the TV comedy about the anxiety that goes into making a TV comedy has instead become a comedy about Liz and Jack losing their self-assuredness and drifting into embarrassing moments of madness as NBC accommodates now too-big-for-primetime stars like Jennifer Aniston and Oprah.

We know that NBC has abused 30 Rock in the past, who can forget the shameful Bee Movie plug that kicked off season 2? And honestly, it should be said that Aniston and Oprah’s respective episodes were actually fairly decent, and wouldn’t be a problem had they had been spaced more evenly. The problem, however, is that this season has been nothing but a long string of over-hyped guest appearances. Each half hour is spent trying to find ways to maximize the screen time for Salma Hayek or Steve Martin instead of allowing them to be fully incorporated into the show’s context. In previous seasons, guest stars appeared almost without warning, and were painted-in flawlessly. David Schwimmer’s character conquered the writer’s room (which, it should be said, used to be one of the best opportunities for comedy within the show) and Carrie Fisher came on the scene with big plans for TGS. Will Arnett and Edie Falco just made sense within this miniature universe. They were insiders, they weren’t outsiders with tangential sub-plots who seem to only interact with Liz and Jack at seemingly unnecessary social functions.

Which brings us to the next issue, which is: Liz and Jack are no longer well-defined characters. Back in the good old days, I could identify with Liz, I understood where she was coming from. Here we had this smart, workaholic, slightly awkward, take-charge woman who didn’t see a point in compromising her values when it came to doing what she loved, but who had just enough private self-doubt to keep her human. She was snarky, sarcastic, and generally cynical (with moments of liberal optimism), but every once in awhile she got freaked out about her priorities and became just desperate enough to backslide towards Dennis Duffy. Yet she always picked herself up, and she rarely settled. This was a Liz that was easy to see as being latched onto by Jack as an unsuspecting protégé. She had powers she didn’t fully comprehend. This was a Liz that was elitist without meaning to be, smug because she had a right to be, and who didn’t conform to typical depictions of women on television. It worked. Liz appealed to a smarter television viewer. When Liz fretted about being single, it was because she almost choked to death alone in her apartment. When Liz suddenly had delusions of a white wedding, it was depicted as a bout of mania.

These days, Liz has become compliant. She is a sub-par everywoman content to humiliate herself and prone to hysteric, out of character, desperation. This Liz Lemon isn’t the glue that holds TGS together, but instead seems never to even sit down long enough to type something out. This Liz Lemon steals baby shoes and holds fanatical fantasies about adopting a child though we can’t imagine why she’d really want one. This Liz Lemon is compliant. She falls into dates with odd characters and seems frequently content to settle for whatever happens to present itself. I mean, come on, this is a woman who in the past decided that a sandwich took priority over a boyfriend…why the hell would that character suddenly take part in cloying schemes more appropriate for Teri Hatcher on Desperate Housewives? I don’t see as much of myself in this character anymore, and while that may make it more personal, I take it as a bad sign. The same goes for Jack. While a little of his loosening up can be attributed to his heart attack and friendship with the TGS crew, he retains little of the rampant right-wing logic and socioeconomic elitism of previous seasons. And call me crazy, but his off-color comments are half the fun of his character.

Maybe this is the problem. In being shoved into the limelight as an NBC phenomenon that plays host to A-listers and wins every award it’s nominated for (deservedly), 30 Rock has lost some of the elitist attitude that really gave it that initial edge. I think the cast and crew know it, and more importantly, I think Tina Fey knows it. Was it just me, or did the Feyster seem to take her repeat Globe win as almost a burden? In that walk up to the stage, could you read a hint of disdain? A desire to break free from the sudden sycophantic crowd and return to the way things used to be? Maybe I’m romanticizing the plight of Fey as seemingly well-adjusted human being suddenly accepted by the fucked up in-crowd…but I don’t think so. Right now it seems as though 30 Rock is being shoved into a position that would win them that “followship” award. Characters who weren’t mined enough have been traded out for headliners and there just ain’t enough soul. Why do we have to sacrifice strong characters for better ratings? What does it mean? What does it signify? Is this the price we must pay for being able to keep our beloved show? Is this a trade-off? 30 Rock remains but will slowly become a ghost of its former self? Am i the only person who notices the dilution? Perhaps this is the way of all television. We can only hope that now that 30 Rock has been renewed and has a definite future, they’ll also gain the freedom to go back to their roots.

NBC, let 30 Rock be. The best way to insure success now that all eyes are on Tina Fey is to allow her to do her thing, without the frills. Do it for me. We don’t need another Friends. Don’t try and make it one.

2 comments:

  1. I've been trying to put my finger on what's wrong with this season, and you did it. Well put!

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  2. I completely agree and I miss all of the supporting characters too. Where are the miss adventures of Toofer and Frank? Why hasn’t Cerie talked about her soon to be husband? Even though I’m OK with Jenna and Tracy becoming a screen time combo set (because I see it as a natural evolution of their characters) they have both lost some of their edge. Tracy isn’t portrayed as mentally ill anymore, he’s just a bit off, and Jenna’s narcissism has been toned way down.

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