VIDEO: Jerry Seinfeld on 30 Rock
This time last year, who would have guessed that Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would be dead by Emmy time and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock would be an Emmy winner? Of the two SNL-inspired NBC shows, the former was an hour-long drama, the latter a half-hour comedy. It was widely assumed West Wing creator Sorkin’s show would be all but invincible. But after debuting to breathless hype, Studio 60 quickly revealed itself as a pretentious, portentous, self-serious mess. And then it was cancelled. Meanwhile, 30 Rock, after a wobbly start, fast became the best sit-com on TV.
But for all that the show seems to have been vindicated, with (marginally) improved ratings and its shiny new Emmy for outstanding comedy series, the sword of Damocles still hangs heavy. At the Emmys, Fey thanked NBC execs for “believing in us enough to keep us on the air” and also gave joking props to 30 Rock’s “dozens and dozens of viewers.”
As the show starts its second season (October 4 at 8:30 pm), it’s clearly angling for a wider audience, bringing in high-wattage guest stars like Edie Falco and Jerry Seinfeld — who makes a rare cameo on the hilarious season premiere. Seinfeld knows something about shows with slow starts: the Nielsens for his homonymous sit-com were pretty paltry for its first three seasons before it found its stride and secured its place as one of the most popular series in television history. And if the fictional pilots that 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy (an indispensable Alec Baldwin) unveils in the premiere — America’s Next Top Pirate, Are You Stronger Than a Dog?, MILF Island — seem doomed, one can only hope his own show is given the time to cultivate the audience it deserves.
One thing 30 Rock has that Studio 60 didn’t: actual Saturday Night Live alums. Fey is immensely likable as Liz Lemon, the lively, love-unlucky head writer on the fictional sketch show. (Fey was SNL’s first female head writer.) Tracy Morgan kills as the show’s non compos mentis star, Tracy Jordan (formerly of modern-day blaxploitation flicks like President Homeboy and Who Dat Ninja?). Rachel Dratch is put to great use playing an array of bewigged characters, and Chris Parnell has the occasional cameo as the frighteningly weird Dr. Leo Spaceman. (His surname has three syllables.) Baldwin, who may as well be an honorary SNL member, just about steals the show as Donaghy, the puffed-up and puffy NBC exec. His sotto voce repartee with Fey is exquisitely timed; their interactions have the ring of repressed romance. And that’s not discounting the contributions of Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski as two dim-bulb blonds — he’s Kenneth, the sweetly ingenuous NBC page, she’s Jenna, the show’s incorrigibly flirtatious lead actress.
This pitch-perfect ensemble cast of crazies — abetted by bright, eye-popping cinematography and a jaunty jazz soundtrack — effect something like a live-action cartoon. The writing, irreverent and self-referential, riffs on a galaxy of pop-cultural signifiers. (The season premiere touches on the inanity of reality TV, the lifestyles of the über-wealthy, and some stars’ unfortunate run-ins with transsexual streetwalkers.) It’s also one of the most quotable shows on TV: “I love this cornbread so much, I want to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant,” and “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”
We know what happens to brilliant, quirky comedies that play by their own rules. Remember Arrested Development? That unique ensemble show was reduced to begging for viewers before being axed after three seasons. 30 Rock has a chance this year to cement its place in the NBC line-up — and, perhaps, in the firmament of all-time classic sit-coms. If only enough viewers can catch up with it.