Monday, March 18, 2013

Box Set Blues: 30 Rock

No "Movie of the Week" this weekend, because we watched Skyfall, which we'd seen (and reviewed) before. This time we let Ewan stay up and watch it, because he's been pestering us to, and he really enjoyed it as well, not least because 12A rated modern action movies are still pretty new to him, so come with that added frisson of excitement from watching a "Grown Up" movie. If you can call Bond "grown up". Anyway, what we have also been watching a lot of, filling our need for the odd, just-before-bed sitcom, is 30 Rock.

For UK viewers, 30 Rock has been one of those shows you hear about, but hasn't been that easy to find to watch. It was first over on Five, which is a poor fit for a comedy satire about making US network television, before it moved down the dial to Comedy Central. I'd heard of it, but didn't really know what it was other than that it has a cult US following and starred the woman that did that great impression of Sarah Palin. It seems to be the modern fate of US shows coming over here - if they're not big hits, like Homeland or The Big Bang Theory, then you're never going to find them, as they migrate between timeslots and channels in search of an audience they are doomed never to find. Unless they're HBO shows, of course, then they safely locked up behind Sky Atlantic's Fortress of Murdochian Evil.

But I digress. 30 Rock takes its name from 30 Rockerfeller Plaza, the home of NBC, and centers around the production of "The Girlie Show",  a sketch'n'gags show that is flagging in the ratings and recruits probably-actually-insane stand-up comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to refresh its line up. Early episodes make a lot of the back-stage satire of TV production, with existing star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) dealing with the interloper, and showrunner Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) dealing with interfering NBC management Jack Donaghey (Alec Baldwin). The show quickly ditches this as a main theme, however, and moves onto something altogether stranger.

Over the course of the first season we get the somewhat familiar sense of a show finding it's voice and tone, and over the course of that the more blatant showbiz satire drops away and a lot of the relationships become softer around the edges. The cast and crew of the show rapidly became family, and the conflicts that drive the shows humour come from external interaction not internal ones. To put it simply, Liz and Jack are Mum & Dad, Jenna and Tracey are the kids, and characters like NBC page Kenneth their wierd cousin. It's all very familiar, but what saves 30 Rock, and what makes it good, is the screwball farce vibe it generates within that dynamic.

For a start it's scripts are sharp and quick-witted, able to generate warmth for it's characters without making them untouchable. Liz a classic "bleeding heart Liberal" but much humour is derived from poking at her contradictions. Jack is a staunch Conservative Republican but is also allowed to be the "good guy", looking out (in his patriarchal, Republican way) for "his" people. Tracey gets played for laughs but he's also the "truth to power" guy, Jenna is shallow but allowed to be occasionally perceptive, and rarely mean-spirited, and Kenneth is a hillbilly, but also a tireless seeker in the best of people. Everyone is very likeable and no-one grates, and there's not a lot of comedy half-hours that can say that.

The show that this reminds the most of is Frasier, another show built on engaging leads, dysfunctional families and a sense of humour that was keen on skewering it's characters with their own inflated pretensions. In terms of other comedy we've watched recently, it doesn't have the meta-textual analysis of Community, nor the broad strokes crowd-pleasing of The Big Bang Theory. But neither does it has the formers overwhelming need to show its pop-culture working nor the latter's insistence on keeping its characters mostly in locked in stasis. Like most of its characters, it's happy just doing it's own thing.

And yes, I'm late to this comedy party too. 30 Rock finished airing over in the US late last year, but at least I still have four more seasons to look forward to.