30 Rock: Season 3 Review

I must admit that it’s taken me a long time to get on the Tina Fey train, but I finally think I’m starting to get the appeal. I always felt lukewarm towards her work on Saturday Night Live, and I had never felt compelled to give 30 Rock any more than cursory consideration, but after watching this season, I’m willing to admit that she’s a very talented woman who plays to a largely unappreciated demographic almost flawlessly, and that 30 Rock is the best representation of her work. I am not without reservation on the show itself, nor do I think she is equally talented in all of her many tasks on the show, but I am no longer going to insist that there is something wrong with people who prefer this show to The Office (though I will still always probably prefer the latter).

The end of the last season found Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) without a job, General Electric in the hands of his rival Devon Banks (Will Arnett, playing virtually the same character that he did in Arrested Development), and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in the usual position of having to contain the stupidity of Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the two dim-witted stars of The Girlie Show (which Lemon produces). I’d like to say that those two characters have any distinguishable traits beyond that they are stupid and prone to doing things that seem cynically calculated on the part of the writers to create laughter, but they really don’t, and nearly every episode plotline revolves something that either of one of them has done to make Lemon’s job more difficult. Wisely, this season recognizes how potentially boring that could get, and gives generously (both in time and character) to the most impressive roster of guest stars since The Simpsons. Though the most celebrated of all of these cameos must be Oprah Winfrey’s in the second episode of the season, props must also be given to Jon Hamm as Lemon’s love interest and Alan Alda as Donaghy’s long lost father that he might be wishing he didn’t have in the first place. Strong support also comes from idealistic page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who seems to embody everything that Fey imagines people outside New York are like, and Frank Rossitano (Judah Friedlander), who seems to embody everything that most people imagine TV writers are like. Though there are a few ongoing subplots, this show is pretty take-it-as-you-come, and you are under no real obligation to watch the episodes in order.

The aspect of the show that I always found most difficult to engage with (and am still mixed in my feelings towards) is its visual style. Though there is mercifully no laugh track, both the cinematography and the score suggest a heightened sense of reality that could honestly be called reminiscent of a 60s cartoon show such as The Flintstones. While it jives with some of the show’s more obvious jokes, it provides a harsh contrast with some of its more grounded character moments (Lemon and Donaghy are both multifaceted characters who never mug for the camera in the way that others do, even if they represent certain stereotypes of their own), and prevents it (at least for me) from ever gaining the kind of traction necessary to make the show really engaging as opposed to just funny. On the other hand, it does allow Fey to show off what she does best, which is jokes and funny situations (rather than character based comedy). On a show by show basis, she manages to maintain the level of invention at a pretty high level, with nary a single repetition of the tried and true sitcom plots (character goes camping, character goes to jail, etc.). My personal favorite was one in which Donaghy was thwarted in his attempts to date a woman because of his evil doppelganger on a Mexican telenovela. It’s too complicated to fully explain now, but it gives you some idea of this show’s sense of humor, particularly when Donaghy faces off against his Mexican counterpart. It’s a great scene that gives Baldwin the chance to play his natural movie star qualities for great comedic effect, and cement his position as the cast’s most natural comedian.

It’s a shame that Fey doesn’t quite match him as an actor. For all of her other positive qualities, she is never able to match Baldwin in terms of comedic timing or presence. It’s a shame, but it’s also sort of a surprise. For the majority of her career, Fey has sought to position herself as the heiress to the comedy throne previously occupied by the likes of Gilda Radner, and has more than shown that she can play with the boy’s club as well as she did (few female comedians on television were ever up against the odds that the early Saturday Night Live cast members were). And by making her central character a single career woman who is often tempted by the lures of family and children, Fey has made the show relevant to the social concerns of her generation, which most comedians have avoided doing as if it was the plague. But while she is a capable performer, she is by no means the effective embodiment of the career woman that Murphy Brown was, nor does she give off any of these qualities without telegraphing them through dialogue.

30 Rock is a very funny show, but it occasionally makes you think that it could be a great show, if only it found a way to more organically combine its two best (being its innovation and its relevance) and most diametrically opposed qualities. I think that Fey could do it, but maybe not with this particularl show, or even this particular phase of her career. Hopefully, however, when her talent is fully realized, Alec Baldwin will be there to say something funny. Because, as he’s shown here, he does that really well.

DVD Bonus Features

The set also features audio commentaries on a number of episodes, several deleted scenes, a “behind-the-scenes with the Muppets" (where scenes from the show are performed with Muppets, footage of the Kidney Now table read, a ‘making of’ for "He Needs A Kidney”, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live monologue, Tracy Jordan’s rant, and several award acceptance speeches.

"30 Rock: Season 3" is on sale September 22, 2009 and is rated NR. Television. Directed by Constantine Makris, Don Scardino, Gail Mancuso, John Riggi, Ken Whittingham, Millicent Shelton, Steve Buscemi, Todd Holland, Tricia Brock. Written by Tina Fey, Robert Carluck, Jack Burditt,John Riggi, Matt Burditt, Ron Weiner, Jon Pollack, Tami Sagher, Donald Glover, Kay Cannon. Starring Jack McBrayer, Jane Krakowski, Salma Hayek.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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