I’ve been watching 30 Rock recently. Late to the party, I know, but what’s new?
It was a slow start for me – I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it past the first few episodes had they not been only 20 minutes long (my heavens, does American TV really have that many adverts in a half-hour show? Crumbs). But I’m glad I did give it the benefit of the doubt, since once it loosens up a little it’s a terrific show.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about it: dysfunctional, mildly neurotic, ‘kooky’ young professional woman struggles to maintain sanity/control/dignity in her all-consuming job while contriving narrowly to miss the American dream despite seemingly ‘having it all’ in New York. Gee, where have I heard that one before?
However, Tina Fey is, I now understand, something of a genius. Her performance is smart – it’s tempting to write ‘sassy,’ but that’s curiously old-fashioned, right? – and her character stops just short of ‘cutesy,’ somewhere around the ‘adorable’ mark. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, but Alec Baldwin is wholly brilliant, and Fey cannily cedes the comic initiative to him whenever they share the screen. One gains the impression that she enjoys writing his character even more than she does her own, and her delight at his performance is palpable.
But there are two things that really set the show apart from the crowded middle ground of comedy. Actually, one thing, come to think: the show has a very clear idea of its own limitations. It’s not trying to be anything other than straightforward entertainment; it never forgets that it has to make you laugh.
So, the Tracy Jordan character is problematic. It’s a very broad stereotype, played equally broadly. But every time I think I’m about to throw something at the screen, some twist or nuance to the character is revealed that dissipates the tension. It’s brilliantly-judged.
Similarly, the show manages never to take itself too seriously. This was, of course, the problem with Aaron Sorkin’s superficially-similar Studio 60, which somehow got itself portrayed as comedy despite being fairly straight drama, and then disappeared up its own redraft in a horrid molasses of self-referential fermentation. I rather it enjoyed it, but then I work(ed) in TV.
In contrast, the worst judgement involved in 30 Rock is the title. Once the characters, setting, and dynamic are introduced, the show settles into a pleasingly genial attitude of mucking about with the format. One suspects the following exchange occurs frequently:
“You can’t do that! It breaks the rules.”
“It’s only a TV show. As long as it’s funny, who cares?”
For example: it’s become gratingly commonplace for shows like this to break the fourth wall – that is, for characters to turn to camera and address the audience directly. At times this can work rather well (Hustle), but usually it’s plain irritating (also Hustle). 30 Rock does it sparingly, and on at least one occasion I was willing them to do it, and was still surprised when they did.
That sort of willing conceit, where the audience is almost literally cheering the show on, waiting for the line or pay-off we know is coming, is desperately hard to pull off in practice. By the end of the first series, for me, 30 Rock is doing it in almost every episode.
Aware that they have the audience exactly where they should be – rooting for the show – gives the writers leeway to arse about. And they do. Gloriously. Gags, set-ups, locations, and even music sequences that ought to be appallingly indulgent are instead pulled off with such bravado that we’re left gasping for more. There aren’t many examples of productions with such a clear sense of joy, perhaps outside children’s TV.
We worked desperately hard with The Big Bang to buy ourselves the latitude with the viewer to do basically anything: we were cheeky, broke our own rules, played with the format. It was a joy, and the flexibility we granted ourselves was why I loved the show. But in practice it was a tremendously difficult thing to do, because that sort of flexibility requires that the audience indulge the show, and that sort of respect has to be earned. With The Big Bang we only really got it right after nine series.
30 Rock is there before the end of one. Terrific writing, exemplary attention to detail, and ruthless production discipline: it’s a brilliant example of television craft. I love it.
That was a bit gushing, wasn’t it?