Smart girls

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  December 12, 2006

There’s much more to say about Veronica Mars. How Kirsten Bell has timing so sharp you could slice your fingers on it. (Watching her, you can imagine that Dorothy Malone’s sexy and sassy bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep has taken over from Philip Marlowe.) How Jason Dohring has transformed his character, Veronica’s boyfriend, from arrogant rich kid to rich kid doing his damnedest to be a human being. The dimpled sarcasm of Tina Majorino as Veronica’s buddy Mac, and the faith the show puts in its audience by employing labyrinthine plotting conveyed in shorthand bursts, knowledge transmitted through a line, or a sudden edit. What needs to be said is, if you’re not watching it, you should be, and if the CW cuts the show loose, it will have earned a special circle in Hell. One more Big Sleep reference: remember when Martha Vickers says to Humphrey Bogart, “You’re not very tall,” and he replies, “I try to be”? CW execs: attempt to be tall.

And while I’m praying to the TV gods to save worthy shows, 30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 pm) gets a special mention. The Tina Fey–created sit-com in which Fey plays the head writer of a network comedy show (read: herself on Saturday Night Live) doing battle with an overbearing network exec (Alec Baldwin) has been written about as if it were too “inside baseball” to play well in Peoria. I couldn’t disagree more. Most of us, whether we work in the media or at Wal-Mart, have had a psycho for a boss. Or at least an egomaniac. The inspiration of 30 Rock is to make Baldwin’s boss from hell fully self-aware that he’s arrogant, offensive, and ruthless — and make him not care. In an age where management routinely screws workers and tries to convince them it’s for their own good, Baldwin’s character is something like an honest man. A son of a bitch you wouldn’t piss on if he were on fire. But honest. When he turns into Hannibal Lecter in order to beat a co-worker at poker, it just requires a slight transformation.

But Baldwin’s not the whole show. Tracy Morgan as the nutso movie star he brings in to take over the program plays off all the tabloid stories about the more whacked-out moments of Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy. He’s like a kid from special class imbued with the momentum of a Mack truck. Also the sensitivity. As the insecure star he displaces, Jane Krakowski is the most luscious kind of pixilated — she’s a partridge who sings like a cuckoo. And as the perpetually grinning NBC page, there’s a ray of demented sunshine who goes by the name of Jack McBrayer. Try to imagine the friendly enthusiasm of everyone who’s ever been in “Up with People” distilled to its mindless essence. Add a tab of acid and . . . voilà! McBrayer is one of those second bananas, like The OC’s Autumn Reeser, with her spectacular timing, who can convince you that the spirit of ’30s comedy is still alive.

And of course there’s Tina Fey, with her particular brand of dry exasperation. Fey plays Liz Lemon on an amusing double track — you see her parrying her boss’s insults at the same time you watch them burrow under her skin. Fey the writer hasn’t yet created any inner life for her characters, but this type of show may not need that. It might go soft and lose its sting if it started to sympathize with everybody’s egos and neuroses. If 30 Rock lasts, it has a real chance of becoming something rare in American comedy: the kind of work that is genuinely, refreshingly heartless. In other words, something to cherish.

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