From the Archives: Revisit the unpredictable and original workplace comedy ’30 Rock’ a decade later
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Oct. 11, 2006, “30 Rock” premiered on NBC. To commemorate the anniversary of that event, here is the original Los Angeles Times review of the series.
It would be confusing opinion with fact to definitively call any series “the best show of the fall season,” but I can state unequivocally and without fear of contradiction that “30 Rock” -- one of two new NBC shows set backstage at a broadcast-live sketch comedy -- is my favorite. I feel an almost proprietary desire to see it succeed, and given the high mortality rate of such newborns, I light this small candle against its demise.
Strictly speaking, it’s not impossible to avoid comparing “30 Rock” to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” but the unlikelihood of two series on such a particular theme on the same network makes it hard to resist. This is the one made by people with sketch-comedy bona fides -- creator Tina Fey, who plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of “The Girlie Show,” was herself the first female head writer at “Saturday Night Live.” “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels is the executive producer of “30 Rock”; costar Alec Baldwin has been a frequent guest host of that show -- indeed, his appearances there have helped keep him credible through the years.
“Studio 60,” meanwhile, springs from the forehead of Aaron Sorkin, who, as in “The West Wing,” has created a wonky romantic fantasy-drama about how heroically dedicated souls, bound together in a chaotic workplace, can triumph over a corrupt and venal system. “30 Rock” takes account of the same difficulties but in a comic, not an epic way, and though it stretches some things almost to the point of surreality, it nevertheless seems (to a minimally informed outsider) to paint the more lifelike picture. It doesn’t hurt that it’s set not at a fictional network but at NBC -- 30 Rockefeller Center is the address of the network’s New York headquarters -- and that it uses real locations and plays off the network’s actual corporate relationships.
Fey is a dry actress -- some critics barely think her an actress at all -- but she seems to me to be exactly the person she is supposed to be, and makes a perfect fulcrum to balance Baldwin’s purring corporate overseer on the see-side and Tracy Morgan’s loose-cannon black comic on the saw. Baldwin is exceedingly funny as a man who owes his career in television to having developed a three-way oven -- NBC being owned by General Electric, you see -- and arrives at the top of the pilot as “the new vice president of East Coast television and microwave programming” to turn Liz’s world upside down. (“That sounds like you program microwave ovens,” she says, to which he replies, after a pause, “I like you -- you have the boldness of a much younger woman.”)
Morgan, who plays a comedian with nearly his own name, brought in, over Liz’s initial objections, to bring “third heat” to her show, seems to have run half a dozen black comics and a couple of hip-hop stars through a blender and come up with a person who appears to be looking in on the world from some other dimension. (“I’m not on crack,” he protests over an Us Weekly report, “I’m straight-up mentally ill.”) But he has a sweetness to him, and hints of depth. “We’re a team now,” he tells Liz, “like Batman and Robin, like chicken and a chicken container.”
Rounding out the ensemble are Scott Adsit as Pete the producer, Lonny Ross as a player on “The Girlie Show,” Judah Friedlander as a writer and Keith Powell as the other writer, a preppy African American his colleagues call “Toofer” (“because with him you get two for one -- he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy”). Jane Krakowski (“Ally McBeal”) plays Jenna, the original star of “The Girlie Show,” having replaced Fey’s longtime partner Rachel Dratch, who will now play a variety of characters, in a real-life echo of the matter of “30 Rock.”
What is it that raises this series above the herd? Or, rather, what makes me like it so much? It’s smart without either condescending to or patronizing the viewer. Despite its self-referential TV-studio setting, its humor is not particularly “inside” -- the power relationships speak for themselves, and the world that contains them is built quietly out of sidelong details. The show is very much in the hallowed tradition of “The Larry Sanders Show,” which is a fine tradition to follow in, and has roots as well in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Mary Tyler Moore,” which is also good.
If the characters seem vaguely familiar from other workplace comedies, there is something original about the way they’ve been fleshed out, and the timing throughout is unpredictable. You know there is some sort of happy end coming at an episode’s end, but you don’t know how you’ll get there.
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