By Tom Shales
Thursday, November 16, 2006
In desperation there is consolation, because if NBC weren't taking such a shellacking in prime time -- if its nightly lineups looked a little less like the fall of the Roman Empire -- then the low-rated comedy "30 Rock" might already have been canceled.
But happily for viewers (especially those feeling burned out on the kind of pop-Kafka spookiness that the networks are so infatuated with this season), "30 Rock" has not only survived but also, as of tonight, been moved to potentially more advantageous Thursday nights -- land of "Must-See TV" in the days when NBC ruled the waves instead of groveling in the sand.
It gets a bit complicated, however. As a sweeps stunt and to inaugurate a new, mostly comedy lineup on Thursdays, NBC is tonight offering "super-sized" episodes of its better sitcoms, meaning that new episodes of "My Name Is Earl," "The Office" and "30 Rock" will be 40 minutes each instead of 30. Eventually that lineup will be joined by "Scrubs," thus giving "30 Rock" a good lead-in and a good lead-out.
All that strategic mumbo jumbo aside, "30 Rock" clearly deserves another shot, and tonight's episode shows why. The series has consistently and considerably improved since its premiere, and although it unfortunately shares its setting -- backstage at a "Saturday Night Live" kind of comedy show -- with NBC's congested windbag "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the sitcom is refreshingly bright, sweet and, lest one forget, funny.
The cast is a huge plus, and it's dominated by the noblest Baldwin of them all: Alec, a veteran who has proved himself to be full of surprises. His Tony Bennett impression, spotlighted hilariously on the most recent "SNL" (with Bennett himself making a surprise appearance), is a wonderfully affectionate caricature. And on "30 Rock," Baldwin plays Jack Donaghy, vice president of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for NBC's owner, General Electric, as someone more complex than the jerk you might expect.
Donaghy's prominence in the story lines has grown because Baldwin's performance is so rare and rich. He isn't doing the easy thing, which would be portraying a network executive as a clueless doofus. Although it's true that Donaghy is full of stupendously wrongheaded notions that he foolishly mistakes for ideas, as well as a pronounced bullying streak, Baldwin gives him an unlikely subtle poignancy. Instead of merely hating Jack, you're likely to develop a soft spot for him, especially when he tries to dismiss failure as mere foible.
Tina Fey, who created the show and plays Liz, the head writer, engages in smart, even sexy sparring sessions with Baldwin, tolerating all but his most onerous abuses on the grounds that the poor schnook doesn't know any better. His vulnerability is brought front-and-center tonight when Donaghy decides that he'd just love to play himself in a comedy sketch, even if it is live TV and even if he can't remember a line of dialogue longer than "Hello there."
When he says, "I thrive on fear," everybody knows he's bluffing.
The episode is a little shaky, however, when it comes to comic perspective. Presumably, viewers are not to take seriously Liz's pompous announcement -- that "we are not compromising the integrity of this show" -- when Donaghy asks her to insert product placements, for such GE wonders as its offshore drilling motors, into the comedy scripts. But then in a blink, Liz is heaping gratuitous praise on Snapple, by name, and later a man dressed as a bottle of Snapple saunters into the scenario.
Is Fey making fun of the show-within-the-show or the show itself? Or both, or neither? Fortunately, it's not worth worrying about, and there's enough going on with the other characters -- including Tracy Morgan's rakish, risk-taking portrayal of rich and lazy movie star Tracy Jordan -- to keep one not only distracted but also amused.
In light of all the good news, it's painful to report that young Jack McBrayer, who plays an impossibly starry-eyed NBC page, doesn't appear tonight, except in the opening credits. McBrayer is the show's brightest discovery, and his performance has been a bittersweet beauty from Scene 1.
So where did McBrayer go? Fey said yesterday from her office in the real 30 Rock that there is "such a big ensemble" in the episode that he was sort of crowded out.
Ironically, room was found for creepy Scott Adsit as a creepy writer named Frank -- basically a waste of time and space.
"I agree that Jack McBrayer is fantastic," Fey said, "and we are planning to use him lots and lots." Maybe it's a budget thing; NBC isn't exactly rolling in rubles.
For the record, Executive Producer Lorne Michaels, who knows more about comedy than the rest of us put together, also chimed in with praise for McBrayer: "We're very high on him. He's obviously the breakout performer on the series. We like him, the network likes him, viewers like him, everybody likes him."
Unless you're already a fan of the series, though, you'll have to take all that praise on faith. And although "30 Rock" is now part of the Thursday lineup -- once hallowed home to such sitcom classics as "The Cosby Show," "Cheers" and later "Seinfeld" -- the show won't air next week because of Thanksgiving, so McBrayer might not pop up again until December.
Regardless of problems, "30 Rock" has earned its spot on the schedule, and not just because comedies are in such woefully short supply -- although, come to think of it, that might be reason enough right there. "30 Rock" is as good as "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and the rapidly aging "Scrubs." All four shows lined up in a row do not compare with NBC's greatest Thursday nights, but network executives deserve at least a peep of gratitude for keeping the freshmen on the air while smart people tinker with the entrails and make the shows better.
Baldwin's performance, on the other hand, seems perilously close to perfect, beyond improving -- whether wacky Jack is taking a sneaky peek at video of his performance on the show, or irritating Liz by lecturing: "Don't gloat. It makes you seem mannish."
Most of the time, Baldwin's character is the one doling out abuse and yet, in a truly neat trick, Baldwin makes him the show's most sympathetic soul. That's beyond acting; it's more like alchemy. And a crazy joy to watch.
30 Rock (40 minutes) airs tonight at 9:20 on Channel 4.