30 Rock

Thursday, October 11, 2007 by

Sometimes you don’t want to work hard to enjoy television. Sometimes all you want is for the programme you’re about to watch to not leave you in any way exhausted, be it through frustration, tension or sheer exuberance. Sometimes all you need is television that leaves you exactly as it found you.

American TV does this in a way few contemporary British shows can. Its comedy series have an almost blissful disposability and weightlessness that, unlike their UK counterparts, don’t involve shoddy production, dishevelled plotting or lazy characterisation.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Shows about nothing will often have everything going for them. Seinfeld was one; Frasier another. Curb Your Enthusiasm and Scrubs are continuing the pattern. There’s almost a history in the States for comedies that marry cleverness with buoyancy, which don’t presume to do anything but entertain, yet respect the viewer enough to do so with spark and professionalism.

Watching a decent US sitcom is akin to cleansing your palate of any grit and stodge built up from a diet of too much overblown, underdone home-grown television. The ideal show arrives, does it business then takes its leave. It has the courtesy to, if not always make you laugh, then at least carry itself with style. You switch off having felt flattered, not lectured. And you know you’ll be back for more.

30 Rock, excitingly, looks like being the latest of its kind to tick all these boxes. Set behind the scenes of a fictional Friday night live variety show, it shares a near-identical premise with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Indeed, both series debuted in America at almost exactly the same time. But that, fortunately, is where the comparisons end.

For there is no earnest proselytising or clever-clever wordplay or tedious self-analysis here. Neither are there torturous attempts to both celebrate and denigrate the television industry simultaneously. Rather, 30 Rock – named after the address of NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza – spins stories, boasts plausible characters and knows how to tell a good joke. It satirises the minutiae of American showbusiness in such an open-minded way as to seem enlightening to the most parochial of Britons. Plus it’s half the running time of Studio 60. And has twice as many laughs.

To convince the viewer of all this in just one episode is no mean feat. But to do so in the pilot episode alone – well, that deserves an even bigger doff of the hat. And a particularly recalcitrant British bowler to boot.

The magic seemed to work from the very start. Cameras swooping down the streets of New York, arcane 1950s-esque Americana music playing, a distinctly normal-looking woman arguing about queue etiquette by a hot dog stand, a hubbub of pedants taking sides over who was right or wrong … Sure, it may well have been brainstormed and rewritten and amended and edited by a battery of producers over a matter of months, even years, but it worked. You were sold, instantly.

The woman in question turned out to be Liz Lemon, head writer on The Girlie Show, NBC’s weekend curtain raiser and your average (to an Englishman’s eyes) satirical revue. As her day continued, Liz – hugely likeable, unashamedly knowing and dependably harassed – was shown dealing with self-obsessed stars, self-promoting writers and self-motivated superiors. In short, a building entirely stocked up with sitcom gold.

Central to her extraordinary world was a supremely ordinary crisis: the arrival of a new boss. A deeply familiar comic scenario, yes; but one handled here with champion freshness and spirit.

The sparring between Liz, played by the show’s creator and main writer Tina Fey, and her new overlord, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), was the episode’s all-important backbone. He wanted to “retool” The Girlie Show around a wise-talking black comic he’d met on a plane. She was horrified. He observed she had “the boldness of a much younger woman”. She refused to don his choice of clothing, claiming it made her look like “the President of the Philippines”. He ordered her to have lunch with his new choice of star. She ended up sidetracked into visiting a ludicrously stereotyped strip club populated by ludicrously stereotyped black punters and desperately giving money to the female performers “for computer classes”.

Somehow everyone made it back to the studio in time for transmission. Jack’s protégé, Tracy Jordan, inevitably ended up stealing the show. The audience went wild. The rest of the cast fumed. Liz threw a plastic bottle at Jack. The stage was set for a showdown … and the credits rolled.

Baldwin was splendid as the husky-voiced, melodramatic, second-guessing schmooze. This role should see him good for a few years. Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan appears to be making a decent enough job of parodying a parody: normally something to be avoided at all costs. And Tina Fey is simply a revelation. It’s such a relief to watch an American sitcom and not find a leading lady who is sassy, blousy, the stooge or just thick.

It was unsubtle. It was, at times, crude. It wasn’t an even ride to the end. Yet even before 30 Rock was over you knew this was a programme you were happy to be with. Better still, you knew there were another 20 episodes queued up behind it, waiting to be with you in return.

Which is an obvious statement, perhaps, but curiously reassuring. It comes back to the way American television flatters you in a manner quite unlike anything produced here. Rarely do quantity and quality enjoy parity this side of the Atlantic. Over there, it’s a given. It might mean two-dozen episodes of unremitting schlock. It might mean two-dozen episodes of unrelenting gold. But you get your fill either way. And in the case of 30 Rock, that’s a reason for unconfined joy.


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