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30 Rock: Television Eats Itself - And Lives! Plus The Hits & Misses Of TV On TV
Terry Staunton , April 7th, 2010 12:40

Why was 30 Rock able to capture the public's imagination while Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip faded away after just one season? Terry Staunton investigates

When the American network NBC launched two strikingly similar new series within a month of each other in 2006, it was clear to most industry observers that only one (if either) was likely to flourish. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and 30 Rock both focused on the behind-the-scenes hi-jinx of a fictional TV comedy show in the mould of the long-running Saturday Night Live, and the smart money was on the former to emerge triumphant.

The brainchild of The West Wing supremo Aaron Sorkin, Studio 60 was top-lined by Friends favourite Matthew Perry and arguably the most popular member of Sorkin’s awards-laden White House drama’s ensemble cast, Bradley Whitford, as the creative partnership tasked with reversing the fortunes of a ratings-bereft late night comedy cavalcade. On paper, it looked a winner, but its cancellation after just one season reignited the question of whether viewers were really that interested in watching television about people making television (see below).

Sorkin’s borderline preachy agenda may have contributed to the downfall of the Los Angeles-based Studio 60, its chin-rubbing manifesto outweighing the mirth. In truth, it was billed as a drama and never claimed to be an all-out laughfest, but the concept of comically-minded characters addressing “serious” issues about the nuts and bolts of broadcasting was always going to be a hard sell. Over in New York, meanwhile, 30 Rock prospered due in no small part to its own creative dynamo, Tina Fey.

An alumnus of the hugely influential Chicago-based comedy improv hotbed Second City (which also spawned John Belushi, Bill Murray and Steve Carell among countless others), Fey spent nine years at Saturday Night Live, initially working as a writer before rising through the ranks to become the show’s first ever female head writer, and eventually moving in front of the cameras. She gave the show a feisty female presence that recalled the ‘70s glory days of Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin or – less successfully – the pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But perhaps more importantly, her experiences inspired her own exaggerated fictional version of SNL.

In the opening episode of 30 Rock (the series takes its name from the Rockefeller Plaza address of NBC’s Manhattan studios), Fey is Liz Lemon, the head writer of struggling comedy and music extravaganza The Girlie Show, fronted by Liz’s former improv partner, the self-absorbed Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski). But the arrival of corporate new broom Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) signals changes, most sweepingly the introduction of a cocksure loose cannon movie star (played by Tracy Morgan) and the re-branding of the ailing show to reflect his status, TGS with Tracy Jordan.

An unwritten rule of TV comedy is to quickly establish a workable – and hopefully durable – premise that allows both writers and performers a solid foundation on which to breathe and build. In short, if you get the "sit-" right, it frees you up to concentrate on the "-com". 30 Rock so boldly and succinctly set out its stall that Fey and her creative team (several of whom she brought with her from SNL) were able to go straight to fleshing out a cast of characters the audience could clutch to their collective bosom, to the point where, by the start of the third season, out now on DVD, the finer details of the workplace they share hardly seems to matter.

Krakowski, who’d previously displayed her comedy chops as smart-mouthed secretary Elaine in Ally McBeal, plays Jenna as a would-be diva oblivious to the limitations of her talent, proud of her Israeli chart-topping disco hit 'Muffin Top' and her big screen turkey The Rural Juror. Consequently, Liz spends countless hours massaging Jenna’s fragile ego, while also figuratively wet-nursing the wayward Tracy Jordan, portrayed by Morgan with a knowing wink in the direction of reputedly "difficult" real-life stars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.

Patrolling the corridors and performing menial tasks at the whim of the "talent" is NBC page Kenneth Parcell (a scene-stealing Jack McBrayer), an innocent rube who "lives for television" and acts as the unwitting moral flipside to the excesses of others. A hick with a child-like heart, in one memorable Season Three episode we get a hilarious glimpse into his world, the point-of-view camera revealing that he sees everyone around him as if they were characters in The Muppets.

However, it’s the interplay between Fey and Baldwin that delivers the biggest barrels of laughs. At first, the left-leaning Liz, all liberal conscience and chaotic self-deprecation, is in direct conflict with Republican poster boy Jack, the embodiment of all she thinks she despises. But Fey, as both writer and actress, skilfully develops an entirely believable rapport between the characters, with neither as the lesser foil to the other. What emerges is a genuine friendship and mutual admiration, albeit generously peppered with put-downs and piss-takes. Oh, and don’t waste time contemplating "will-they-won’t-they" romantic diversions (again, see below), as in the steadfast words of Donaghy himself, “never gonna happen, Lemon.”

The character of Jack was written with Baldwin in mind, Fey having witnessed his formidable comic timing at close quarters during his numerous stints as an SNL guest host. It’s an astonishing performance, delivered for the most part with a granite-like straight face, although he clearly relishes his intermittent sorties into physical comedy. Who would have thought an actor so chillingly unnerving in Glengarry Glen Ross or Malice could "bring the funny" with such brilliance?

Season Three earned an unprecedented 22 Emmy nominations last year, although the series’ viewing figures remain relatively small compared to NBC’s previous big hitters Seinfeld, Friends or Frasier. In the UK, Five screened the first series, relegating the second to its digital and satellite offshoot Five USA, and passing on the third, which was subsequently picked up by Comedy Central.

Five cited an overload of references to American television personalities unfamiliar to UK viewers as part of its reluctance to stay with it, suggesting someone somewhere has clearly missed the point. Yes, it’s a TV show set in the world of TV, but it’s far from insular or “niche” to the point of exclusion. 30 Rock might just be the funniest programme currently in production; smart and snappy, but joyously free of cynicism or self-importance. In that respect, it hardly seems like television at all.

Season Three of 30 Rock is out now on Universal Playback DVD. Season Four debuts in the UK on Comedy Central on April 19.

"Shut it down!" – The Hits And Misses of TV on TV

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-77)

Tina Fey admits that this long-running ratings-winner was the spiritual ancestor of 30 Rock, with Tyler Moore as the thirtysomething producer of a Minneapolis news programme, juggling a messy private life with a ragbag assortment of TV station colleagues (grumpy editor with a heart of gold, vain and pompous news anchor, man-hungry cookery presenter). One of the first sitcoms to highlight women in the workplace, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking the premise was in the ‘70s. The show’s haul of 29 Emmy awards wasn’t beaten until Frasier in 2002.

DROP THE DEAD DONKEY (1990-98)

Much-loved Brit offering set in the newsroom of the Globelink cable station, populated by an ineffectual put-upon editor, his strong and capable female assistant, a tabloidesque field reporter prone to outlandish fabrication, narcissistic on-screen anchors, and a smug management lackey trying to manipulate editorial content to suit his paymaster’s own fiscal agenda. Each episode was recorded just 24 hours before transmission, enabling writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin to weave topical gags into the script. A neat trick for the times, but the unavoidably high turnover of here-today-gone-tomorrow names and faces in the news means the show has less impact when watched in reruns years later.

THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (1992-98)

The egos and insecurities of late night talk show hosts provided rich pickings for Garry Shandling’s acerbic study of light entertainment’s underbelly. Shandling played Larry as an awkward ball of neuroses, kept on an even keel by old school veteran producer Artie (Rip Torn) and hindered by oafish on-screen sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). It pioneered the idea of guest celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves, such as Sharon Stone as a predatory femme fatale, Elvis Costello as a temperamental rock star wrecking dressing rooms, and, to great effect, David Duchovny harbouring a latent crush on Larry.

SPORTS NIGHT (1998-2000)

Falling uncomfortably between comedy and drama, Aaron Sorkin’s first, pre-West Wing series was set in a sports cable station newsroom. What started out as the most gentle of satires on TV production and the interference of billionaire media moguls (including several thinly-veiled digs at Rupert Murdoch) mutated in its second and final series into a limp romantic yarn, with the on-off relationship between on-screen anchor Peter Krause and spunky producer Felicity Huffman. The re-tooling of the series may have been an effort to attract more female viewers, although the word "sports" in the title remained a stumbling block.

BOB MARTIN (2000-1)

This short-lived vehicle for Michael Barrymore was an unashamedly blatant attempt to make a Larry Sanders for the UK, with the Saturday night all-rounder proving to be a comic actor of considerable clout as the eponymous washed-up game show host oblivious to his fading star power. In common with its American forefather, the series cast celebs as themselves, although the likes of Jimmy Savile and Darren Day could barely hold a candle to the Hollywood A-listers queuing up to appear with Sanders. Overall, it was met with a positive critical response, but Barrymore’s fall from grace after the death of Stuart Lubbock at the entertainer’s home scuppered any hopes of a second series.

EXTRAS (2005-7)

What started out as an affectionate portrait of the forgotten foot soldiers of TV and film production, ie "supporting artists", quickly became an altogether sourer overview of the creative compromises required to get a show on the air. Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) yearns to be a respected writer-performer, but once commissioned by the BBC his sitcom When The Whistle Blows becomes a lowest-common-denominator embarrassment, awash with bad wigs and banal catchphrases. However, the platonic love affair between Andy and Ashley Jensen’s Maggie Jacobs was the true heart of the series, her innocence and honesty at odds with the fame-hungry arrogance of a man becoming more disillusioned as each of his wishes are granted.

STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP (2006-7) Aaron Sorkin could pretty much write his own ticket after the massive success of The West Wing, but opted to bite the hand that fed by taking pot-shots at corporate ogres threatening the artistic integrity of programme makers. The pace and pithiness of the dialogue initially attracted fans of the earlier political drama, but like Sports Night, from which it recycled several of its storylines, the show began to lurch towards will-they-won’t-they romantic sub-plots involving the lead characters, and viewing figures plummeted.

BACK TO YOU (2007-8)

As Sorkin discovered on Studio 60, pairing firm favourites from previously long-running successful shows, in this case Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond), doesn’t necessarily guarantee fresh riches. Thrown together as co-anchors of a Pittsburgh news programme, the couple’s on- and off-screen sparring disguised a secret from their pasts – they had a child together! From the opening scenes of the pilot onwards, the concept and scripts seemed tired and dated, and its chances of survival were dealt a further blow by the extended TV writers’ strike. It was cancelled after one series, its final three episodes never broadcast.

MOVING WALLPAPER (2008-9)

A satirical comedy about the making of a soap opera, immediately followed in the schedules by a played-straight episode of said soap, may have been a little too high-concept for a mainstream broadcaster like ITV1. Ben Miller starred as the perfectionist producer of the decidely low-rent serial Echo Beach, leading to all manner of barbed asides about the vacuous nature of network television. However, when a show takes such glee in, to all intents and purposes, insulting the core audience of the channel that screens it, is it any wonder the powers-that-be pulled the plug after one series? It was granted a reprieve of sorts a year later, with Miller’s character at the helm of a small screen zombie thriller, but was killed off for good after a further six episodes.

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