I have fallen head over heels in love with 30 Rock. I watched the start of season one when it “premiered” on Five way back in 2007 (a year after it has begun in the States) and I admit, I was not taken by it. A bit too slick, was my initial judgment – also, it coincided with the arrival of Aaron Sorkin’s godlike Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, with which 30 Rock shared an identical set-up: the backstage goings-on at a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy show in a major American city. Incredibly, both shows debuted in the same season on NBC, although only 30 Rock is actually set at the offices of NBC (30, Rockefeller Plaza) and takes the piss out of its parent broadcaster – Studio 60 invented the fictional “NBS”. History tells us that Sorkin’s more ambitious, hour-slot comedy-drama was doomed to be yanked off after one season, while 30 Rock, the less ambitious, half-hour-slot comedy-non-drama, went on to a second and now third season, with armfuls of Emmys and Golden Globes for its troubles. When creator and star Tina Fey and star Alec Baldwin went up to collect their Globes this year, I felt slightly disconnected from the fuss.
And then, last week, Front Row asked me to preview the second season, which is about to belatedly start on Five, and they kindly sent me the entire set of 15 (a reduced series due to the writers’ strike). I watched the first two, reviewed it, favourably, and then ended up bingeing on the remaining 13 over the weekend, in bite-sized 20-minute chunks (which is the actual length of a half-hour sitcom in America, of course). I was officially hooked when, in Episode 2, Jenna (female star of the show-within-a-show – sweet but self-obsessed and played by Jane Krakowski), who’d put on weight after appearing in Mystic Pizza: The Musical, went to see the network doctor. He said, “For your height, your weight puts you in what we call the ‘disgusting’ range.” and then suggested she take crystal meth, to help lose the weight, asking, “How important is tooth retention to you?” I don’t know what it was about that scene, but they had me at “disgusting”. This is a slick show, but within those 20 precious minutes all five of the principal characters – Liz, Jack, Jenna, Tracy, Kenneth – gets a storyline and all five are tied up. Sometimes one of the supporting characters gets an arc too. Maybe the second season is a lot better than the first, I don’t know, but when it’s good, it’s on fire.
As a comedy set in the media, specifically TV, it’s in a fine American tradition: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Garry Shandling, Larry Sanders, Murphy Brown, Sports Night … but for all the in-jokes about network television and NBC specifically, it’s really about relationships. There’s a sly dig at Aaron Sorkin and Studio 60 in Episode 3. Liz (Tina Fey) says to NBC page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), “Can you walk and talk?” To which he replies, “Usually, but now you got me thinking about it.” At which he attempts to coordinate walking and talking. It’s a quick gag, and – hey! – does not drive the story, but it’s priceless.
In Ep 5, network exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), does a walk-and-talk with Liz and reads through some audience research: “Look how he’s testing, they love him in every demographic: coloured people, broads, fairies, Commies … gosh, we’ve gotta update these forms.” I can’t do it justice by typing these lines up. Have a look this Friday on Five USA.
Incidentally, I purchased the Season One box set this morning. If you buy it on iTunes, it costs an astronomical £41.99 – and that’s an invisible version. I checked Amazon, where the same “item” (if the downloadable version can indeed be called an “item”) retailed for £10.98. Then I checked HMV.com, where the same item was … £9.99. I’m sure you could probably get it even cheaper secondhand, but I’m more than happy to part with ten quid for a three-disc set containing 21 episodes and 448 minutes of classic US comedy. Who in their right mind would download it from iTunes? I mean, really? (Unless they were desperate to watch it on their iPhone, of course.)