Thursday, April 12, 2012

GOOD ON TV? JUST HOW GOOD IS "30 ROCK"?



Shortly after I posted my blog about how there was too many pot-smoking jokes and characters on Network TV nowadays, a friend of mine Facebook'd me, and asked why I had posted an old episode of "Roseanne" on my blog. I told her that I mentioned the episode in my review as a compare/contrast about how to actually make a decent episode of a sitcom that's revolves around pot, and in the case of "Roseanne,"'s "A stash From the Past" episode,  it's an exceptional example. My friend's complaint was that it's a 15-year old episode and that there's been loads of television since. (Also, she also made note that the episode was actually one of her favorites) She's right about that, but I also challenged her to come up with an episode of a TV series about pot since that's better. She never responded back, and while I think a few episodes of "That '70s Show," give it a run for it's money, I still don't think there is one.

Still, it got me thinking a bit. I haven't written a "Good on TV?" blog entry in a while, and frankly, I hadn't really wanted to. Most every show that I thought had been worth talking about, I had already discussed in some form, and more importantly, I wasn't particularly inspired by anything on television today, and it's hard to be. I mean, what the hell am I supposed to do, suffer through an episode of "The Middle," or watch a rerun of "The Mary Tyler Moorse Show" that I know is better than 99.9% of everything that's ever been made? Frankly, I don't think it's particularly close. Why isn't TV better, really? I mean, I know there's some exceptional work on TV, especially on cable, why is television so drastically hit-and-miss? Everybody in the writer's room know all these shows, (Or at least they should) they've been on in reruns forever for good reason, they should be just as inspired by them as I am. You know, not too long ago, I was reading an article about "The Big Bang Theory," on some entertainment website somewhere, and somebody commented on it, about how he loved reading about sitcoms like this, but really wished people would just sit down and read Tolstoy once in a while, and I lost it. I answered his comment, and told him, not to dare take down the entire medium, told him not to compare apples and Tolstoy, the way he was doing, and then I demanded that he name me of any kind, in the last, I don't remember, 25, maybe 50 years, that's had a bigger influence on modern-day western society as "Seinfeld" had. (I dare everybody else to come up with one too, 'cause whatever you say, I can just start naming "Seinfeld" references, and you won't have a comeback. I'll start with 'shrinage'.) That's how powerful can really be at it's best! I mean, I actually don't have to explain what "shrinkage" means, and everybody got it.

This is the state of mind that I was in when I finally said, "Alright you know what, I have been bashing television a lot lately, let's start with the top, and figure it out simply, 'What is the best show on television, right now, at this very moment?" Well, while I certainly have to give a hand to those cable dramas like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and "Dexter", and certainly have to give more than a clap of my hands to "Family Guy," "The Simpsons," "South Park," and "Archer," on the animated side, and stand back and admire "The Big Bang Theory," "The Office," "Modern Family," "How I Met Your Mother," on the network sitcom side, (Cable sitcoms are in a bit of a transformation period, but "Nurse Jackie," "Weeds," "The Big C," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,"... they are certainly admirable and definitely worth-watching) it's really dawning on me now that "30 Rock," truly is in that upper eschalon of television. Everytime I make a comparison to a good modern show, I almost always use "30 Rock". If I'm referencing a show, in modern conversation, if it's a current show, it's almost always "30 Rock". Whenever I see a trend on television sitcoms nowadays, I can always show that "30 Rock," was one of the first shows to do it.

I was thinking about this the other day actually, I tweeted "Other than "30 Rock," and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," were there any other hit TV shows that are about people who write television?" (To all those "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," fan [me included] I said "hit" shows, but nice try.) I eliminated "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "Murphy Brown" because that was about news show, and news more-or-less happens, and frankly after that, I couldn't come up with one. Actually, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," wasn't a hit either originally. It was actually cancelled after it's first season, but CBS had to keep it on the air after Proctor & Gamble threatened to take out the money from their daytime lineup, at the time, the channel's most lucrative programming, so they kept it on, where it became a hit in reruns. "30 Rock," has never been a big hit either actually. It's never ranked higher than 69th in the ratings, but in downloads and streaming views, it's one of the most popular of shows, its one of the biggest critical hits, and has won dozens of Awards, including three Best Comedy Series Emmys. Yet, I've always been somewhat reluctant to admit it's greatness. Well, that's not true, I've said it's the best show on TV before, but I haven't always believed it when I said it. I've been watching the show since episode one, and have loved it since the beginning, but I also have to admit a slight bias against it.

You see, it originally came on at the same time NBC put on one of my all-time favorite shows, the aforementioned "Studio 60...", and their was some talk about the shows being in competition with each other since both were about the behind-the-scenes of a "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy show. It's totally an unfair thing to compare the two. On wikipedia.com there's a good quote by Kevin Reilly you can look up, but to paraphrase, he talks about how it's completely common for a network to have three or hospital or cop shows, two shows about doctors or something like that. Still, I was in "Studio 60..."'s camp, because it was written by Aaron Sorkin, who's the best writer in Hollywood. It actually had better ratings than "30 Rock," but it was cancelled because it cost too much to make. That was unfortunate, especially since I think it was the best show on TV, although a lot of people mentioned how they didn't seem to think it was particularly accurate to the behind-the-scenes of an "SNL"-type show, being probably the main criticism. The fact is, it wasn't accurate, but I seriously doubt "30 Rock," is a good representation of that either. "Studio 60..." was as accurate as a representation of Aaron Sorkin's world, the same way that "30 Rock" is an accurate portrayal of Tina Fey's world, and that's really the key to the show's greatness.

Tina Fey doesn't write every episode, I'm aware of that, but it's her show and her voice. Her point of view of the world. It's hard to describe her actually. She seems to be able to envelope and satirize all levels of culture in a way that's never been done before. In the most minute lines of dialog, she seems to throw in extra little tidbits that twist the normal into the absurd, and turn back in on top of itself, and back into the normal. Other shows are constantly trying to imitate this, but few of them ever really succeed, because essentially, they're trying an imitation of her comedic style. There was a joke last week on "Happy Endings," for instance, where a character purposely makes a reference to them being on a TV when the Casey Wilson character comes into a scene distressed that her latest boyfriend broke up with her, somebody says "What's with your latest boyfriend that we only hear about through dialogue?", or something to that effect. It's a funny line, yes, but it's a conscientious effort to break a third wall. "30 Rock,"'s been doing these kind of jokes since the beginning of the series. An early joke in the series for instance, about product-placement not being okay, and suddenly Liz starts raving about Diet Snapple tasting just like regular Snapple, and everyone in agreement about it, for instance. It plays into the world that's created in "30 Rock". They work on multiple levels because the show is about television and people making a TV show, but even more than that aspect, is that this is natural theme and tactic in Tina Fey's comedy. What is and seems like a self-referential joke is actually the manner in which Ms. Fey attacks a subject. She brings it up, she legitimizes it, and then satirizes in, all within, sometimes the same sentence. I actually use a variation of this technique often in my writings, especially in these blogs and essay, I'll often suddenly burst out of a sentence, (Usually doing so using parenthesis or some other form of brackets) with some kind of punchy addition or joke about what I'm writing; many times doing so making a reference to the fact that I'm actually writing the essay as I'm writing the essay. [I would say that it's an effort to create the effect that you can follow the structure of how I'm writing the essay, while you're reading the essay, but in actuality, I just kinda like doing it) There's actually a stream-of-consciousness type effect this creates, and so even when the most absurd and strange comparisons come out of the character mouths in "30 Rock," it never feels forced. This actually comes from an improv technique where, like Tina Fey and many of the cast members of "30 Rock," would've learned as Second City performers, where you're taught to say the first thing that pops into your head, but also to accept and say "yes," to anything else that the other actors might suggest during a scene. This is the creation of Tina Fey, and it's through this joke-telling technique that she's able to pour into all her favorite areas to satirize. TV production, the business world, politics, love, the portrayals of women in the media, the clash of cultures, and subverting cultural stereotypes, that's a big one. Take a look at her cast and you've got a pretty good snapshot of America in her characters, and in their stereotypes. The dumb blonde, the Republican egocentric businessman, the outlandish African-American, the dimwitted southern innocent, the career-oriented woman who can't keep a relationship, and that's just a handful of them.

You know, I am just going over details of how "30 Rock," works as a show, and that may seem somewhat insipid, but you have to realize how revolutionary what they're doing is. It's got the same kind of insucient ideas and insistence of a vision of what a sitcom can and should be that led to the episode of "Seinfeld," that takes place entirely in a parking garage. These may be easy to describe techniques, but they're original ideas for television. Even when they borrow from other sources, like the cutaways jokes that are from "Family Guy," ""Scrubs," and/or "Arrested Development," they're still rightfully placed inside the milieu of Fey's "30 Rock" better than most shows, which seem to just be copying. They know the history of television before them well enough to take what they can use, while creating their own. Many have already noticed numerous comparisons with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" for instance, especially the Mary Richards/Lou Grant-type relationship between Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon that's the core of the show. They really aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. Fey even notes in her books "Bossypants", how they never wanted to be a critical and Awards darling, and have more or less always tried to be "Home Improvement", which doesn't sound particularly lofty until you look up "Home Improvement"'s ratings. It's strange how other shows are actually gonna get better ratings borrowing from "30 Rock," than "30 Rock" may ever get. Fey is that rare combination too talented and unique, something that's practically impossible in any art form, much less the three, acting, writing and producing that Ms. Fey does. She's never gonna get the ratings she wants, but then again, she doesn't realize herself how important her work has become. "30 Rock," doesn't hold up a mirror to society as much as it just figured out how to hold up a mirror using scotch tape, Verne Troyer and 9-year Vietnamese sweatshop workers. It's strange considering the mirror was already on the wall to begin with, but "30 Rock" for ya, it just does it a little differently than anything before it, or since, and that is all Tina Fey. There aren't a lot of shows that can claim they either invented or mastered a storytelling style, no new ones anyway.
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