Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shut It Down: On the Rise and Neverending Fall of 30 Rock

When it first premiered, 30 Rock promised to at least partially fill the gaping hole left by the cancellation of Arrested Development, the most brilliant sitcom that ever existed. Arrested Development marked the zenith of the "no hugging, no learning" style of situation comedy promoted by Seinfeld, its cast a hodgepodge of vain, arrogant and thoroughly unlikable people who were so uproarious together you couldn't help but watch. 30 Rock thus softened the approach, giving us a cast of characters who didn't really deserve love but were so goofy you gave it to them anyway.

For two seasons, it was the funniest show on TV, picking up the occasional slack in the American Office with a show revolving around meta-humor and a constant critique of the network that kept them on the air despite low ratings -- in the 30 Rock world, even allowing them to exist was proof of the infamous negligence and mismanagement that sent NBC into a tailspin these last few years even as some of its best programming ever has hit the airwaves. Yet as the show moves into its fifth season, there's a sad truth that must be acknowledged: 30 Rock is so far past its prime that the only humane thing to do is put it down.

Like Arrested Development and any other show that ignores emotion for laughs, 30 Rock excelled when the writing clicked. When a single joke failed, however, the dead air created was deadlier than a missed mark in a more lighthearted comedy.

In the third season, the cracks started forming. For every magnificent episode -- "The Funcooker," "Apollo, Apollo" -- there was a corresponding dud -- "The One With the Cast of Night Court," "Goodbye, My Friend." When an episode failed, it generally did so for one of two reasons: one, it reached too far within the meta framework of the show's humor, delving too far into esoterica while still remaining facile enough for the show's younger audience, almost none of whom would be familiar with something like Night Court. Two, it made the fatal error of assuming that anyone cared about the characters beyond their silly adorableness.

So when the show threw episode after episode at us about Liz Lemon struggling to adopt, or wanted us to empathize, even jokingly, with Jack Donaghy's stalled career ambitions. That these two stories represent 40 percent of the only narratives 30 Rock uses -- the others being Tracy's insanity, Kenneth's naïveté and Jenna's insecurity -- only compound the frustration felt when we must watch these stories over and over again.

30 Rock began to act like a character-driven show to stave off the burnout that comes with relentlessly writing jokes, an understandable fear. (Look at the writing staff across a few seasons of The Simpsons in its prime, or even now; the rate changeover is horrifying.) But you can't make two seasons of Seinfeld and then start making The Cosby Show; one is the direct and intended antithesis of the other, and to suddenly be expected to empathize with these two-dimensional punchline setups was absurd.

The writers understood this, but rather than go for broke in the Arrested Development fashion, they made the same lazy choice that so many do these days: pad their shortcomings with broad irony. "We really want you to care about the latest fight between Jenna and Liz, which is no different from earlier ones only we're supposed to feel good about ourselves at the end of this one, but since no reasonable person could expect that with these characters, we'll add in a wink at the end like a passive-aggressive emoticon at the end of a clearly insulting post."

Yet still, I watched, and I even bought the third season on DVD because enough episodes were gems. The fourth season, though, took a turn for the worse. The very first moments of the fourth season announced how tired its self-reflexivity had become, how the cheekiness of earlier broad references had given way to bored, limp looks to the camera. Even as Tina Fey was growing as an actress, her and her staff's writing abilities had hit the walls, and everyone started to suffer. No longer did Alec Baldwin come off as the offensive but affable version of the cardboard devil Republicans Aaron Sorkin used to prop up in The West Wing. Tracy Morgan lost his edge when his act just got old, while Jack McBrayer finally succeeded in making us feel the annoyance Kenneth's do-gooder nonsense engenders in other characters.

I could not even make it past the mid-season break, though the episode that preceded the Christmas special, "Dealbreakers," was easily one of the series' best, returning to the pure ridiculousness that made the show great. Watching Liz having to receive guidance on how to "wave your arms like a human being" made me cry with laughter in a way I hadn't with any comedy since 30 Rock's own "Rosemary's Baby." But that was the only episode of the entire first half that completely connected, and the Christmas episode was so uneventful that when the show finally came back, I'd just lost interest.

Still, I tried to give it another go when the new season started, and if they got back on track, I'd gladly fall in line once more. Sadly, the damage has been done. Though none of the episodes so far have been outright "bad" -- and there weren't more than a handful in the third or fourth seasons -- not one has the feel of what made 30 Rock so irresistible initially. That the show has devolved not into true badness but banality, it still has people hoping for the best. Even a critic as insightful and on top of things as Alan Sepinwall continues to let mediocre episodes pass because they're an improvement over some of the fourth season.

But I can no longer justify following around a show that has been on tenuous ground for half of its run, and not even the immense joy I take from the first two seasons can keep me coming back for another 22 minutes of faint chuckles and watch-checking. Even the live episode, the ultimate display of ratings-chasing desperation for any show, didn't pass muster, and 30 Rock had the advantage of being populated with a writing staff cherry-picked from live comedy television. Ultimately, I was only mildly impressed by the staging of the episode and the way the crew handled the show's typical cutaway format in a live setting. But I didn't laugh, and the tame sense of admiration I had for the gang not crashing and burning couldn't conquer the sense of ennui of watching them continue to peter out with a whimper.

I was struck recently by catching up on Community how a show can really deserve the reaction Sepinwall gives to lackluster episodes of the latest 30 Rock. When part of a Community episode misses the mark, at least one other aspect picks up the slack. The latest episode, for example, couldn't keep track of both Annie and Abed's stories and should have just focused on one without regressing both to their initial, more stereotypical personalities. Yet the episode itself was so damn funny that it genuinely excused what is hopefully nothing more than a momentary lapse in reason. On the other hand, the episode that preceded that one focused more on the heart than the laughs (though they were certainly there), and the results were moving without segueing too harshly from the irreverent tone of much of the series' comedy. Even when it doesn't measure up, some part of Community is so entertaining that it invites all those lazy add-ons of "but it's still better than 99% of what's out there."

When 30 Rock attempts to move out of the narrow box it built for itself, everything completely falls apart. And it's fallen apart so many times that I no longer care about the few occasions in which the writers get their act together. I love what Fey and the rest accomplished with the series' best moments, and it will be sad to see such a great cast go their separate ways, but I wish they'd go ahead and do it so they don't continue down this path until no one will shed a tear when they get canceled. Fey will rebound, Morgan will continue to capitalize on his remarkable mania and Baldwin can do whatever he pleases, secure in the knowledge that he reversed a decade-long slide into irrelevance with the most entertaining role of his career. That should be enough to lift the spirits of those involved. If only it could make me get over the crushing disappointment of 30 Rock's decline.


  1. I could only take a minute or two of the live eppy, with the obnoxiously whooping studio audience and Baldwin forgetting that he was playing Jack and reverting to his SNL shtick instead. (On the other hand, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gave alt-Liz a new dimension of anger that was funny.) "Community" has easily surpassed both "30 Rock" and "The Office," though I think it's toe-to-toe with "Parks & Rec". (Come back soon!) Did you read Sepinwall's note about the last episode regarding Abed: that originally he was supposed to be mimicking Ed Harris in "Apollo 13" but at the last minute they changed it to Gary Sinise instead? I picked up on that confusion as I watched it and agree with Alan that they should have stuck with the Harris spoof. Still a funny episode, like you said.

  2. Yeah, I think they should have with Harris too, and they should have just scrapped the regressive spin on Annie altogether, but I still really enjoyed the episode and laughed hard more than once.

    I think Community's even better than Parks & Rec, though that show has blossomed so magnificently it's hard to call in favor of either show. But I had no faith in Community from the start and very little in P&R after its incredibly shaky first season, but man they are both just brilliant.

  3. Normally I think your opinions are exactly right. I have to disagree with you here though. In my opinion 30 Rock and The Office have been the best two shows on tv for several years. Parks & Rec is right up there too. While still funny The Office is declining. 30 Rock however is as strong or more so now than ever. Season 4 may be overall the best season yet and the first few episodes of season 5 have been excellent. I abandoned Community after a few episodes last year but based on your comments I plan to catch up on it soon. I'm a loyal reader of yours. Thanks for all your writing.