Thursday, January 31, 2013

30 Rock (2006-2013)

'Thank you, Kermit, for explaining the afterlife to us.'
Tonight marks the end of a series that wasn't supposed to survive when it premiered and was predicted by some in the press to be the NBC show about sketch comedians that was going to fail. NBC's other show about sketch comedians, the high-minded Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was going to take off and become the next West Wing, right?

Seven years later, Studio 60 is a low point in Aaron Sorkin's career that's largely forgotten (except for Sarah Paulson's genuinely funny Holly Hunter impression and that unintentionally funny line that was hurled at Nate Corddry, "Your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!!!"); 30 Rock reruns are all over both syndication and Comedy Central; and the lunacy and sharply written bits of TV-industry satire delivered by Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, the other 30 Rock writers and Fey's co-stars have been dissected and analyzed in so many think pieces and effusive (and not-so-effusive) blog posts, whether in TV criticism circles or amongst the Jezebel crowd. And the show will continue to be dissected and analyzed long after tonight's series finale. (An example of a 30 Rock-related topic that was discussed within the blogosphere late last season was "30 Rock is racist." I don't think it is. 30 Rock is hardly 2 Broke Girls or Modern Family, where Asian driver jokes are still considered funny on a show that calls itself modern. The Tumblrers who say 30 Rock is racist clearly never saw the first-season episode that raised the question "Is Tracy Jordan a disgrace to black people like Toofer accuses him of being?" Fortunately, that episode dealt with the question in a humorous way instead of morphing into an irritating and preachy Very Special Episode about that subject.)

Hope that's not Donaghy Estate Sparkling Wine that they're drinking.
I think the key to 30 Rock's longevity was its lack of high-mindedness, even during the tedious stretches of episodes that focused on the characters' love lives and must have been what Alec Baldwin was referring to when he recently admitted that the writing in the fifth season once made him say, "I'm going to get the fuck out of here, I'm done." A lack of high-mindedness is always more entertaining than actual high-mindedness, which the one-season fiasco that was Studio 60 was awash with. This anti-Studio 60 didn't put its characters on a pedestal (although Liz Lemon's feats as babysitter to her needy and batshit crazy stars Tracy and Jenna were nearly superhuman and superheroic). 30 Rock didn't think of TGS with Tracy Jordan, the fictional sketch show that Fey modeled after her SNL stomping grounds, as a comedic masterpiece each week (and SNL wasn't the only sketch show TGS was reminiscent of because you could also detect in the fake sketches a hint of MADtv, some All That, a smidgen of In Living Color and a smattering of MTV's Just Say Julie).

Liz and her mostly lazy staff writers weren't curing cancer with their comedy. Almost all the fake sketches we got brief glimpses of were terrible and hacky. The TGS writers' obsession with robots was a parody of comedy writers' obsessions with robots. And omnipresent network exec Jack Donaghy, who was like an older brother from another mother that Liz never wanted but eventually ended up becoming her (strictly platonic) best friend, didn't care about the quality of TGS, as long as the show was making bank and keeping NBC (barely) alive.

As 30 Rock ends its run, TGS is being killed off. But the show-within-the-show is experiencing a fate worse than cancellation: an Axe Body Spray-ish sponsor called Bro Body Douche has taken over TGS and--like the Arsenio-inspired network tinkering that caused Larry Sanders to quit his talk show--the sponsor has turned TGS into an even worse show than the hacky SNL/MADtv counterpart Liz ran for presumably over a decade. The newly rechristened Bro Body Douche Presents The Man Cave barely has any sketches, but it has lots of Spike TV-style bro news, and in what I assume is a jab at NBC's increasingly cheap comedy programs that mirrors Fey's recent not-so-positive feedback on the network's change of direction in scripted comedy, it's all shot in front of a green screen.

Liz may have lost her show, which was never really worth fighting for anyway, but she hasn't lost the one part of it that ended up mattering to her more than writing sketches about robots and TV chefs who can't stop puking: looking after Tracy and Jenna and keeping them out of trouble. At the end of last week's penultimate episode, "A Goon's Deed in a Weary World," Liz--whose arc from a few years ago about her wish to become a parent is one of many loose ends from the past that have been tied up this season--and her new husband Criss (James Marsden) finally meet the kids the adoption agency found for her, and in an inspired gag that could have been a perfect series-ending scene, the agency sends her a pair of orphaned eight-year-old siblings: a narcissistic blonde who resembles Jenna and her brother who's literally a brother, a mini-Tracy who's already showing signs of being, as Tracy so proudly and memorably described himself in the first season, "straight-up mentally ill." It's 30 Rock's twisted idea of heartwarming.

The series could have ended right there, and I would have been a happy dude. But there's apparently more business 30 Rock has to attend to tonight. Afterward, we're losing not just one of the best comedy shows of the last few years but one of the best-scored of any genre on TV. Fey's husband, 30 Rock musical director and series composer Jeff Richmond, who, like Fey, hailed from Second City and SNL, continually came up with terrific comedic score music (is it me or is the Modern Family theme a total ripoff of Richmond's 30 Rock main title theme?) and hilarious fake songs like "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" and "Muffin Top." On A Fistful of Soundtracks, you can currently hear some of the Richmond cues that Relativity Music Group released in 2010, as part of a two-disc release that's one of my favorite deluxe releases of anything, simply because of Richmond and Fey's jokey liner notes and the sheet music for compositions like "That's Her," a.k.a. Liz's theme.

The opposite of Kenny G.

The best Jewish novelty song since, oh, I don't know, 'Oy! It's So Humid.'
I'll also miss hearing Jenna's recollections about "the sheik," as well as reading about the cast's off-screen antics, some funny and awesome (Fey's response to Republican bullshit: "If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a $2 haircut explain to me what rape is, I'm going to lose my mind!"), others not-so-funny and not-so-awesome (Tracy Morgan's clunker of a stand-up bit about gays). Another thing I'll miss about 30 Rock is looking forward to its guest stars each season, even though the stunt-casting didn't always work (who thought it was a good idea to have the not-so-Puerto Rican Salma Hayek play a Puerto Rican?). But a guest shot on 30 Rock became the modern-day equivalent of guest-starring on Batman in the '60s: whether you were Oprah, Steve Martin, Isabella Rossellini, John Cho, Jon Hamm or Elizabeth Banks, you probably got your ass whupped on-camera (or in the case of Ghostface Killah, was forced to drink really shitty wine), but you ended up with lots more comedy street cred afterward. Not bad for a little show about sketch comedians that was supposed to tank.

Tina Fey shows with her thumb and forefinger how tiny Todd Akin's peen must be.

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