Sunday, December 4, 2011

Classic TV: Why I Miss “30 Rock”

I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing from this year’s fall TV series lineup. The failure of The Playboy Club, the disappointment that is Pan Am (which nevertheless illicit great analysis on the brilliant fashion-related TV blog to which I occasionally contribute, You Know You Love Fashion), and the sorely wrenching one-two punch of New Girl and Whitney were prone to induce depression and a longing for true quality television. There are terrific new series such as Once Upon a Time and the on-life-support (“hiatus” is a euphemism, I just know it) Prime Suspect, but what’s really missing is my beloved 30 Rock.

30 Rock grew out of a development deal Tina Fey received in 2005 following nearly a decade of greatness at Saturday Night Live. The antics of an SNL-style sketch comedy centering on the neurotic head writer, the Republican blowhard / mentor figure who protects the show from corporate heads threatening to cancel it, the incredibly bizarre comedian who fronts the show, the starlet hanging onto her youth, and the ragtag team of writers is easily the best show on television, for me (Modern Family is a very close second). As Fey went on maternity leave this spring and gave birth in the early fall, the show will return to the air on January 12, 2012, giving the five and a half million fans of TV’s 106th-highest-rated show something to cheer about and look forward to in the New Year.

Here are five reasons why I miss 30 Rock:

1. It is today’s equivalent of the ultimate workplace comedy (no disrespect to The Office, which I also love)

Every decade brings at least one excellent comedy on the workplace. In the 70s, the beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show showed us the humanity and dignity of work, without ennobling it or making martyrdom or sacrifice of a work-life balance something to shout about. In the 80s and early 90s, Cheers demonstrated that work can be lively and, given the right balance of personalities, remind us that work is, to many people, like a second home, provided that you happen to like most of the people who work there. With the economy in danger and the more those with jobs are pulling bigger, heavier loads due to fewer people at the office, work becomes a bit more unbearable and there are plenty who are hanging onto their jobs and doing them just to stay out of the unemployment line and welfare office.

The rather preposterous situations in this comedy are not the usual run-of-the-mill variety, as they go over the edge and verge on the surreal. And isn’t your work a bit like that, sometimes? The series’ fast-paced dialogue is never dumbed-down for anyone, since those who criticize the series for being “too smart” and “too snarky” for its own good are not worthy to watch this ingenious show on a regular basis. Despite the discouragingly low ratings, 30 Rock remains alive due to the high quality of its writing, directing and acting (and not just for the also-high production values) and, quite frankly, there’s always been at least one really smart little comedy show kicking around on the air that doesn’t stick around long enough to be truly appreciated because most folks “just don’t get it” (RIP Arrested Development, The Critic, Sports Night and Pushing Daisies, among others).

2. Jack Donaghy is one of my personal heroes

I am not saying this because I am a Republican (since I am Canadian, I cannot be, and by virtue of being Canadian I will always be a little left of centre regardless). I am saying this because for a lot of us, who wouldn’t want to be successful, put-together, with impeccable credentials and a glamourous corporate office in the sky? What sets Donaghy apart from so many other suits on TV is that he’s unapologetically successful, without being smug about it (but he doesn’t have false modesty about it, either).

When I used to watch successful corporate types on TV growing up, I never thought that J.R. Ewing was the be-all-end-all of that corporate type. I enjoyed Donald Trump on The Apprentice until one day I realized his business-minded daughter Ivanka was way cooler. I had initially thought such a boss should be feared but approachable, and not be a blowhard who yells at people all the time just to exert control. It must have been serendipitous (the second time I’ve used that word in a blog post this weekend) that Meryl Streep’s scary Miranda Priestley on The Devil Wear Prada showed up in theatres just months before Alec Baldwin and the premiere of 30 Rock, because her performance was a primer for Jack Donaghy, the kind of executive I’ve always wanted to be. (They also both whisper, which is a lot more frightening than a scream.) That, and for some reason, I’ve thought that Baldwin would make a really kick-ass executive type. That Baldwin infuses him with humanity and yet keep his wits and witticism about him is a testament to the ingenuity of the writing staff.

3. Since I am not Jack Donaghy, I identify strongly with Liz Lemon

Most days, I am like Liz Lemon. I spin my wheels creatively trying to find something to write, I sleep at weird times, I eat constantly (although my dietary and exercise habits are far superior to hers, since she uses her treadmill as a coat rack), and my best-laid plans somehow get delayed or veer off-course and I just want to utter “BLURG!” because I have no better way to verbalize my frustrations. This isn’t a bad thing, because Liz is just trying to “have it all” like the rest of us, an Everyman person in a position of authority who is steering a ship against the waves. Most of us are like Liz Lemon, and not like Jack Donaghy. She needs him to mentor her through her professional life. Aren’t we all a little frustrated in life, no matter how well things are going? That, and because I have a love of rules, I identify strongly every time Liz gets agitated and resorts to verbalizing in German because the English language just won’t do (for the record I found that Chinese and Spanish work very well for me too). For this reason, I love Liz Lemon and, by extension, I happen to like me, too. See how life-affirming this supposedly esoteric, quirky little show can be? Why is Middle America not getting this?

4.   The sound bites

Here are some of the best sound bites ever recorded on TV:

“Never go with a hippie to a second location.”

[Said by Tracy Jordan to a pigeon] “Stop eating garbage little pigeon, have some respect! Don’t you know you can fly?!”

“I want to go to there.” [Used by me repeatedly]

Liz: “Why are you wearing a tux?”
Jack: “It’s after 6. What am I, a farmer?”

Jack: “Lemon, I would like to teach you something. I would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.”

Kenneth, on coffee: “It’s like my heart is trying to hug my brain!”

“Mother, there are terrorist cells that are more nurturing than you are.”

“We all could learn a lot from Tracy Jordan. We went out clubbing: his life is like Enron 1999. It’s wild!”

“Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned. I’m sorry I’m a real woman and not some oversexed New York nympho, like those sluts on Everybody Loves Raymond.”

“Well I’ve been to a rodeo too. It was a cat rodeo, in a gay guy’s apartment.”

And tons more that you can get here.

5. More bang for your buck: repeat value

The criticism that the jokes fly too yields unanticipated pleasures on DVD. If you didn’t catch the line the first time, watch the show again, and you’ll hear the genius of comic writers at the top of their form. To paraphrase a line from Fey’s brilliant autobiography Bossypants, I have seen the repeats more times than I have looked at my own stool.

As of today, there are thirty-nine days left until the sixth season premiere of 30 Rock. NBC has renewed the show for this season only and, given the low ratings and substantial run it’s had, thanks to much critical acclaim, a cult following, and literally dozens upon dozens of show-business awards, including three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series. Stay tuned in the New Year to find out if we can get to see more of Fey’s genius. If not, to paraphrase another line from Bossypants, “at least we’ll come out of it with DVDs to show our friends”.

Hurry back, 30 Rock. TV’s just not the same without you.