October 15th, 2009
There has been a lot of talk about a backlash against 30 Rock as of late, with numerous critics taking time out of their schedules to less review the new season and more place it on an axis of television comedy. The question is not so much about whether 30 Rock is funny, but whether it is consistently funny, and whether it is funny in ways that imply long-term development or ways which rely too heavily on quick cutaways and an almost sketch-comedy aesthetic. Whether VanDerWerff or Holmes, Sepinwall or Weinman, everyone seems to agree that 30 Rock is a flawed show capable of occasional genius, and there are certain things that it could do to improve.
In my relatively short time as a TV critic, I’ve spent more of my comedy analyzing time with The Office, a show which features far more nuance than 30 Rock in terms of its characters. On that show, the actions of Michael Scott need to be finely tuned to (in my view) connect with the right level of comedy, or else risk throwing the entire show out of whack. However, with 30 Rock, the show is inherently out of whack which is kind of the point of the whole thing. I don’t shy away from criticizing 30 Rock, nor do I feel that it deserved to steamroll The Office at the Emmys as it did (as the latter show had the better season, in my eyes), but at the same time I don’t feel that criticizing the show is the same as condemning it. 30 Rock, like all shows, isn’t critic-proof (that’s not a thing), but it is a show that manages to make me happy even when it isn’t quite living up to its full potential.
As such, I thought the cheekily titled “Season 4” was largely satisfied with cheeky as opposed to substantive, and that its commitment to that value resulted in an engaging half-hour of television that didn’t reach high enough but nonetheless had me eating out of the palm of its rough-skinned hand. Helped by airing after a less than fully-realized episode of The Office, the start of the fourth season gives almost no indication of what’s to come, but embodied enough of what makes the show work for me to be pretty excited about it anyways. I missed this show, and I’m glad to have it back, flaws and all.
May 14th, 2009
If there is one blemish on 30 Rock’s solid, if not spectacular, third season that really stands out, it’s the criticism that the show has leaned too heavily on high profile guest stars in order to meet its ratings potential. First and foremost, it was “successful” in its goal: the show was renewed months ago, showing that critical attention and slight viewership growth really can save great comedy. However, the consequences of this was a reputation, that I’ve heard used as a sign of the show’s decline throughout the year.
But I’m with Liz Lemon in the end: it has been quite a year, and while I don’t think 30 Rock won the Thursday Comedy face-off at the end of the year I do think that “Kidney Now!” is a fine argument for the show’s ability to go above and beyond what one would normally expect. Combining two television cliches (the benefit concert and the organ transplant) and sprinkling with the most guest stars the show has ever crammed into it, it reads like one big middle finger to those critics who questioned whether the show could weather the network-pressured invastion of movie stars.
It’s not a fantastic finale, and perhaps lacked the cohesiveness of last year’s “Cooter,” but with a rollicking final song (which you can find more info on at NBC.com) and some fun material for Liz Lemon the episode delivered a nice sendoff for the season.
May 7th, 2009
What a difference a half hour makes: after an episode of the Office that started out without an idea at all and ended up coming together quite well, we have an episode of 30 Rock with a central storyline that was both quite funny and charming, but one that the show surrounded with two storylines that were anything but. And, although this is going to sound weird at first, the problem with this is Tina Fey.
No, not her as an actress: she was hilarious in this week’s episode overall. The problem was that I don’t know which Liz Lemon story to really focus on. Her role in Jack’s storyline, the central take-off of Mamma Mia, was absolutely hysterical, her excitement over realizing her good fortune of having the movie play out in real life maybe my biggest laugh all night. But then the show had her as both lead investigator in the quest to discover whether Tracy’s illegitimate son was a fraud and in a storyline where Jenna’s catchphrase led to fame and success and she was envious of the attention since she was given so little credit for writing it.
The concern here is not a lack of material, but a lack of editing: the episode wasn’t actually about Liz having to balance these three different roles, and her centrality to every story just didn’t end up making any sense. She was vain and petty in her quest to fight with Jenna, unnecessary in Tracy’s storyline when Pete was right there, and could have been used more often in Jack’s storyline to be quite honest.
While some have argued that 30 Rock suffers from a lack of strong supporting players, I don’t think the show is so hard off that Liz needs to be everywhere: a little bit of spreading the love to Kenneth, or Frank, or even Twofer would have really helped “Mamma Mia” get off the ground.
“The Natural Order”
April 30th, 2009
Having already written my posts on Parks and Recreation and The Office tonight, I’ll admit to be at a bit of a loss at what to say about tonight’s episode of 30 Rock. It isn’t that the episode was bad, but 30 Rock just seems to be in a total holding pattern right now, while Parks and Recreation has the novelty of newness and The Office is transitioning out of a really engaging disription. So when “The Natural Order” finished, I was left with some rambling notes about how the episode featured a few jokes that hit, a few jokes that didn’t, and plots that threatened to come together but never quite did.
One of the problems that can kind of tie the episode together, and give me something to talk about, is how in many ways the show has to deal with what I’ll call leftovers. When there’s a small gibbon introduced into the story, it’s a funny throwaway gag that the writers decide not to throw away, and it results in an unfunny and uninteresting C-story. Similarly, while I love Elaine Stritch and storylines that showcase Jack’s more empathetic side are always welcome, at a certain point Colleen Donaghy feels like a character that was so great in that Season One finale that the writers keep reheating with diminishing returns.
It’s not enough to send the show into the territory of downright unfunny comedies, but it usually results in episodes that feel like the cast-offs in need of rewrites, quite likely because they were cast-offs that needed lots of rewrites.
April 26th, 2009
While its Thursday night comedy counterpart The Office has been delving into a long-term storyline over my hiatus, which has made not blogging about it a little bit more problematic, 30 Rock has been in a very different sort of place. This isn’t to say that the show isn’t achieving its goals: this is two solid episodes in a row now, so one can’t say the show is necessarily coasting.
In fact, I’d argue that “The Ones” was really on the ball in terms of both its light comedy (which is almost always strong) and its resolution and continuation of some storylines and characters who have been hit and miss. I was less than kind in my analysis of the Elisa storyline, but some time in Puerto Rico seems to have done both the character and the writers well, as the zany but grounded conclusion felt like the ideal sendoff. Combine with the second straight good use of Jenna, a fun little Tracy diversion, and Liz as Jack’s bro? And this was an episode chock full of strong dynamics.
March 26th, 2009
When Robert Carlock confronted “Apollo, Apollo,” it was if he were taking all of the elements which have made his past episodes (“Jack-Tor,” “Subway Hero,” “Sandwich Day,”) so fantastic and pulling them all together into one rather stunning half-hour. Moving from joke to joke at a breakneck pace, with barely any time for breathing yet alone for truly appreciating the genius on display, the episode achieves the right balance of total absurdity, stunning wit, marvelous delusions and genuine heart in pretty well every single storyline, although to the differing degrees required.
It’s almost unfair to other comedies that 30 Rock can combine all of these things and still feel as if it was cohesive: we have brand new show-specific terminology, one of the show’s best recurring guest stars (Dean Winters), muppets, Adam West, a wonderful viral video, and along the way so many small moments that the episode was without a dead zone.
And after all of that, anyone who isn’t Lizzing or Jacking needs to get themselves checked out by a doctor/trainer…or should that be the opposite? Hmmm.
March 19th, 2009
There is something very reminiscent of How I Met Your Mother in “The Bubble,” where we say goodbye to Jon Hamm in a way that makes you wish that he had been around a little bit longer. He and Salma Hayek were really the polar opposites: while she was made too central to the key storylines and fell flat after an episode or two, Hamm was in so few episodes and so far apart that while the individual episodes were quite strong we never really got to know Drew as a character, and we feel like we’ve been robbed of that.
But the strongest part of this week’s episode was, in a very HIMYM way, this term of the “bubble” that attractive people find themselves in, full of perks and salmon cooked with gatorade. But while HIMYM has lately been either expanding the scale of these ideas to the entire cast (“The Naked Man”) or treating them as one-liners as opposed to the foundation of an entire storyline, 30 Rock didn’t know what to do with this one: surrounding it were storylines which never connected, and an episode that fell flat at almost every turn.
February 26th, 2009
What “Larry King” represents is an example of 30 Rock doing something that feels like it is happening less often: it takes one event, in this case a crises, and demonstrates its impact on various of the show’s characters. It reminds us that 30 Rock is operating different than most situational comedies. In fact, I’d almost argue that the show has become a carcom, or a character comedy, more than a situational one – while this one episode is built around how a scenario, an Asian stock market crash, effects all of these characters, the show has more or less abandoned its setting at TGS and finds all of its comedy in its characters. Even when the show often expands outside of this, it is with a guest star more often than it is one of these situations.
As a result, the situation is really just an excuse to force Liz Lemon out into the dangerous streets with Kenneth at her side, to place Tracy Jordan on Larry King and spouting nonsensical advice to the people of New York City, and to put Jack and Elisa’s relationship up against a crisis it might not overcome. And yet, to no one’s surprise the parts of the episode that use this situation for sheer zaniness offer the episode’s best comedy, while the one that feels the most formulaic kind of just flounders around, perhaps finally putting a worthless storyline out of its misery. For that, at least, this trip to Larry King was worth it.
“St. Valentine’s Day”
February 12th, 2009
After what I thought was a really fun little romp in “Generalissimo,” introducing us to Dr. Drew Baird (Jon Hamm) as Liz’s new love interest, the show continues to rush forward as more or less a romantic comedy. Centering around the most romantic (and commercial) of holidays, the episode investigates what happens when a relationship moves much, much too quickly, or when it is built on false pretenses, or worst of all when even McFlurries can’t keep people together.
It’s nowhere near the quality of last week, somewhat more meandering in its focus, but when it scores it scores: particularly with the amazing work of Tina Fey and Jon Hamm in creating a relationship that manages to become even more bizarre this week while at the same time actually becoming quite believable and engagingLiz agrees to a Valentine’s date. The rest of it felt more than a bit one note by comparison, a problem for the show at the best of times, but it felt connected enough to the idea of the differences between Valentine’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day.
And the dangers of moving from Date 4 to Date 20 (or date Never) too quickly.
February 5th, 2009
Bravissimo, Tina Fey and company.
With “Generalissimo,” 30 Rock has returned to what I would consider to be, at the very least, its pattern of glory. What works about this episode is not that every one of its storyline is a home run, as I am still extremely bored with Salma Hayek as an actress, but rather that everything connects. Not only do the A and B plots almost entirely intersect with one another, one informing the other, but then the C plot comes out of nowhere to play a convenient but nonetheless clever role in the conclusion.
And with comedies like these, especially ones like 30 Rock which here errs on the side of being a little zany and off the wall, connectivity is their greatest asset: this isn’t the episode where Liz Lemon got a new love interested played by Jon Hamm, or the episode where Jack Donaghy bought a telenovela starring a man who looks like him, or the episode where Tracy Jordan discovered the dangers of placing fire close to his mouth. Instead, it’s the episode where Jack purchasing a telenovela gives Liz terrible advice on dealing with her current crush which eventually is both complicated and then uncomplicated by the crazy antics as Tracy tries to prove his youth.
And that kind of episode? I want to go to there.