It’s a staple of almost all end of year television pieces attempting to recap 2008, but in many ways I resisted placing the 2008 presidential election that (spoiler alert) saw Barack Obama ascend to the Presidency. It isn’t that I don’t think the event was historical or monumental, but rather that part of my believes that television reaches its greatest potential as an episodic medium and that the election’s impact on that has been tangential at best.
But over time, and after reading the various lists which place the election prominently, I started to realize that television is about the medium as much as it is the message. It was the media through which the world of American politics entered into public consciousness that made it so meaningful to the past year. Yes, some of these were pure novelty, like the awful and pointless attempt to channel Star Wars and introduce holograms to the CNN newsroom, but others resonated at something that fundamentally changed the way we looked at politics through television.
One of them is technological but in a more meaningful fashion: once quite rightly eclipsed by the internet as the best way to track election results, John King’s magic map revolutionized the way we monetize broadcast television (or, for those who don’t get the 30 Rock joke, made it far easier to see what data actually meant). His ability to zoom in and out seemed like a novelty, but he was able to compare stats at the click of a button, and move county to county in races that (while they were not eventually as close as they could have been) were changing with each minute.
The year also saw, though, the return of Saturday Night Live to the world of political satire and the realm of public consciousness. After Jon Stewart took over as the voice of a nation of discontented youth over the Bush administration, the rise of Sarah Palin and the talent of Tina Fey coincided in a perfect comic storm: Fey’s impression took the nation by storm, and a creatively uneven show was suddenly a household name again.
The result was that this election felt like an event that reading about wasn’t enough: perhaps it was Obama’s presence, or Palin’s incompetence becoming even more apparent when filmed (the camera adds pounds, not brain cells), but there was something about this election that demanded the medium of television to tell its story. While I was content to read about the recent Parliamentary crisis which gripped Canada, I felt like I needed to watch Barack Obama take to that Chicago stage and address the nation.
And while I may not share my brother’s enthusiasm for politics, I have to admit that in this instance their intersection with my favourite cultural medium was certainly something to marvel at, and ultimately memorialize in the 2008 Television Time Capsule.
Thanks to the kindness of Ashley, a newfound Twitterquaintance, I was able to snatch the 30 Rock premiere for free on iTunes on Sunday through TV Guide’s promotion. So, let it be known that I am writing this review while the premiere has had time to sit…or, more accurately, that I am writing this review having watched the episode four times.
“Do-Over” is not the best episode of 30 Rock, nor is it necessarily an entry into the show’s catalogue of fantastic ones. Rather, it is familiarity that makes this episode so memorable: it offers plenty of showcase opportunities for Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin (albeit leaning towards the former), it has a sharp storyline that offers every character a small moment, and it uses its guest star (Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally) wisely, unlike last season’s unfortunately flat appearance by Jerry Seinfeld.
While NBC is hoping that this is going to be a do-over for 30 Rock, a show that never quite captured the kind of audience the network is looking for, that’s all based on ratings: creatively speaking, the show barely needed a fresh coat of paint to return as the funniest comedy on television.
Well, you can’t say that Saturday Night Live doesn’t have guts. Perhaps, though, they could use a lesson or two in comedy.
In a season where Saturday Night Live is emerging as a cultural powerhouse in an election year, tonight’s special was a chance to further the show’s cause with some politically topical humour that captures the things that have made SNL work this season.
That thing, though, is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. And the one thing absent from tonight’s episode of SNL Weekend Update: Special Edition?
A week from today (Since it’s now Sunday as I write this), Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are each nominated for Emmy Awards for their individual comic performances (I’ll have Emmy coverage all week! Exciting!). So it seems like a sound strategy to take the two individuals and place them in front of a camera to open this the umpteenth season of Saturday Night Live.
And the result was great comedy from two great comics. Fey’s Palin impression is almost scary, and the resemblance created some sort of twilight zone scenario wherein the two people melded together. And Poehler, as usual, nails Hilary Clinton’s desperation and, now, resignation. The skit was consistently funny, ended right when it should, and even broke the Fourth Wall.
YouTube: Palin and Hilary on Sexism (SNL)
But Saturday Night Live has a problem: Fey isn’t a castmembers, or a producer, and is literally only doing the role because she can and because she’s willing to. Poehler, meanwhile, is pregnant and will be gone from the show in a few months. And while Kristen Wiig continues to steal almost every sketch she’s in, the show is still uneven to the point of concern: if you stopped watching after the opening you might have renewed faith in SNL, but as the episode wears on there’s not much else to get excited about.