Release Date: Sept. 22
Creator: Tina Fey
Starring: Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer
Popping the bubble: Genius sitcom needs to move past formula
For a comedy about comedy writers written by a comedy writer, 30 Rock has always resisted self-indulgence. It’s a satire, of course, which helps. And even when some of its pop-culture minutiae is more strange than funny, the show strikes a winsome balance between broad riffs and self-mocking in-jokes, endearing it to a growing audience throughout its first three seasons.
But while Tina Fey’s chipper sitcom has wooed critics and Emmy voters, after three years it’s hard not to wonder where 30 Rock could possibly be headed. The series follows a group of sketch-comedy writers who work at the titular Manhattan address. Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, clearly emulates the real-life Fey, formerly head writer at Saturday Night Live. A corporate bigwig (Alec Baldwin, in the role of his career), a couple of idiotic TV stars (Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski) and some comically overeager assistants (Jack McBrayer, Weeds’ Maulik Pancholy) round out one of the best collections of characters in sitcom history.
In the third season, ousted suit Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) returns from his stint in the Bush administration and works his way back up from the mailroom with feverish speed, and Liz moves forward with her plans to adopt a child, an endeavor that eventually becomes obscured by trivial subplots. Still, 30 Rock thrives on tangents and off-kilter details. The best sequence in any given episode consists simply of a camera following Liz through the office as the people around her slide in and out of view, each with their own antic, breathless asides.
But 30 Rock’s complex sense of humor is more sophisticated than the prevailing sight gags might suggest. The show has a penchant for joining cultural conversations with startling, anything-goes irreverence. In the third season, Liz tries to date a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) but can’t because she keeps confusing him with little boys, and Jenna (Krakowski) dresses up in blackface to prove women have it harder than black men. Liz’s upwardly mobile whiteness also inspires some of the show’s best material, in constant, baffling interplay with Tracy Jordan (Morgan). Where most contemporary sitcoms are fastidiously apolitical, 30 Rock takes on cultural tensions with an almost heroic candor.
If that sounds impressive, it is—or at least it was. The show debuted in 2006, and after three seasons, agonizingly little has changed. It still has the best guest stars on television, but it struggles to give them anything worthwhile to do. (Instead, there’s a lot of, “Hey, look, it’s Oprah!”) Fey also continues to write Liz a series of love interests who show up for two or three episodes (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm plays the part this season) only to be abruptly written off when their contracts are up. Whenever something actually happens to one of the characters, the series promptly backtracks to accommodate its chronic inability to adapt beyond its basic framework.
Even the show’s most remarkable feat—its accessibility—has begun to wane. In the first two seasons, 30 Rock morphed into a more genial workplace comedy, dulling some of its edge but also keeping the meta-framework in check. In its third go-round, 30 Rock often feels too listless to maintain that fragile dynamic, and by the time the cast of ’80s legal comedy Night Court shows up in one episode, it’s hard not to worry that the series’ pop-culture sense has become a little muddled.
These limitations are even tougher to ignore as the show’s future seems more and more of a sure thing. Last year, it swept virtually every television awards show. And in July, NBC announced it had snagged a hefty fee for cable-syndication rights to 30 Rock, a clear signal that the network plans to finish a total of at least 100 episodes of the show (roughly two more seasons).
Yet, curiously, Fey’s biggest breakthrough of the past year had nothing to do with 30 Rock. That milestone, of course, was her fearsome take on Sarah Palin, whom she helped introduce—some would say discredit—to a national audience. Fey’s performance went beyond mere impersonation, seizing on a cultural moment as few entertainers have, creating an unparalleled viral phenomenon. The day after last year’s presidential election, Fey announced she was leaving Palin behind for good to keep her attention on 30 Rock. There’s no reason that should have seemed like such a bummer, but it did. Now that 30 Rock’s future is all but assured, it’s time for Fey to prove that her sitcom can grow into a series that deserves such long-term exploration.