Thursday, October 12, 2006


Although, as I’ve noted on this blog before, I’m not really much of a TV watcher anymore (The Amazing Race is currently the only show I watch every week), I gave a look to 30 Rock last night. That’s because it’s a sitcom with three funny people from SNL; Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan, doing a show about a fictionalized SNL. The reviews haven’t been great, and sadly, I have to concur. I’d call the first episode intermittingly funny.

The main problem was tone. 30 Rock is a ‘one camera’ show, meaning it’s shot with the now dominant format of the roving camera, and usually sans laughtrack (Arrested Development, The Office, Scrubs, Malcolm in the Middle, My Name is Earl, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.), rather than the traditional ‘two camera’ set-up, where shows are mostly shot on sets, with the action cutting from two or three more or less standard camera positions. These shows are more likely to feature laughtracks (Everyone Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, etc.)

In essence, the show doesn’t yet seem to have a firm idea of how ‘wacky’ it wants to be. The opening establishes what seems to be one of the Tina Fey character’s ‘comic’ traits, which is that she hates cheaters. When a guy cuts in front of a long line for a street hot dog vender, she’s the only one to complain. (In New York?!)

In the end, rather than let the guy ‘win’, she buys the guy’s entire supply of hot dogs* and passes them out for free to everyone but the cheater guy. As she walks through the streets handing out hot dogs to weirded-out pedestrians, a parody “Mary Tyler Moore Show”-type theme plays behind her. To ‘justify’ this, it turns out the song is being sung at the rehearsal of a sketch for her latest show. By the way, part of the problem with the show’s premise is that it’s SNL-knock off show supposedly runs in primetime. Er, no.

[*By the way, how much does a hot dog cost from a New York street vender? Fey says she spent $150 on the wieners, but even after passing out a passel of them walks into work with a box load of at least 50 more hot dogs.]

Fey is, as she actually was on SNL, the show’s head writer. The writing staff includes the Slob Proletariat White Guy and the Effete Intellectual Black Guy. Meanwhile, Fey learns that Alec Baldwin, in reward for creating a hot selling convection oven (NBC is owned by GE, and to prove their independence the show features a lot of Letterman-like jabs at the company), has been promoted to the position of President of East Coast Programming and Ovens, or something along those lines.

Blah blah. Long story short, Fey seems to be looking for her footing as the straight woman to the reliably hilarious Baldwin (easily the best thing about the show so far) and the perhaps literally crazy but popular black comic played by Tracy Morgan who joins the cast of her show.

30 Rock has a lot of room for improvement, but it's capable of it, I think. If the show never gets better than its first episode, it will be quickly forgotten. However, it’s often the case that, when you go back and look at the first episodes of a long-running show, you end up thinking, “How did they start like that and end up like this?” I’m hoping that’s what’s in store for this program.

Still and all, just when you’re beating on the faults of this show, you see something as dreadful as 20 Good Years, the show that premiered following 30 Rock, to remind you how bad a sitcom can be. I didn’t watch the whole thing—who could?—but it’s the sort of show so soullessly bad that it literally depresses you to watch it.

Apparently all the thought about the show went dead after they had hired John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor to star. Once you have stars like that, I guess, why bother actually make even a halfway decent show. (On the other hand, I always thought Lithgow’s 3rd Rock from the Sun sucked too, and that ran for years.) Lithgow is a madcap, over the top surgeon who decides at 60 that its time to live every day to the fullest, while Tambor is his Judge best friend, a timid fellow afraid to make even the smallest decision. They’re the original odd couple!

I’m not kidding about getting depressed watching this show. Am I the only one who gets a queasy feeling when you can actually see every rote punch line coming in advance?

Lithgow (I’m paraphrasing): “We’ve only got 20 good years* left! We must live life to the fullest!”
Tambor: “Right!” Quaffs the drink in his hand. He is racked by coughs and ends up ‘comically’ doubled over.
Tambor, recovering: “What was in that [drink]?”
Lithgow: “Alcohol.”
Tambor: “Wow!”

Sigh. Tambor, really? From Arrested Development to this?!

[*Wow, he said the title!]


At 10:44 AM, Anonymous ericb said...

A hot dog from a NYC street vendor usually is $1.50.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Really! That's a lot cheaper than I had imagined. OK, then, $150 would buy enough dogs to correspond with what they showed.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

Baldwin was hilarious and I'm surprised it took him this long to land a regular sitcom gig (if you don't count his equally hilarious voicework on CLERKS). He nailed every line, and I'm convinced he made some better that probably didn't look so hot on the page (i.e. his entrance). What I really liked about his character is that he's arrogant and flip and rude...but he's not really a bad guy. Fey and Morgan aren't very good actors, but that never stopped Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Yeah, that about covers it. The essential thing is that great writing will rescue a bland cast more than a great cast will rescue bland writing. (Or flat-out crappy writing, as 20 Good Years shows.)

As for Baldwin, I presume he just didn't want a regular TV gig before. Like you, I imagine he could have had such a job--drama or comedy--anytime he wanted.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

The fact that Fey's the head writer doesn't exactly make me rend my garments with anticipation. Over the past couple of years, I've seen a few episodes of SNL and I honestly never laughed once; if that was the level of material she writes or approves...


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