30 Rock Season 2 Review
In the fall of 2006 Tina Fey had good reason to be feeling somewhat aggrieved. Following the success of her first screenplay Mean Girls in 2004, she had spent the next couple of years developing 30 Rock, a television series inspired by her dayjob as Head Writer on Saturday Night Live which would follow the backstage antics of the cast and crew of an SNL-like show. Unfortunately, it seemed that she was going to be the victim of very bad timing; no sooner had NBC greenlit her show than the network announced that they had also won the rights to another series with virtually the same premise, another series furthermore which was being widely touted in the industry as the undoubted breakout hit of the upcoming season. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to see the eagerly-awaited return of Aaron Sorkin to the small screen following his somewhat awkward (to put it mildly) departure from The West Wing and that, together with the fact that he was turning his attention to the industry in which he worked, and had as a lead character a television writer with a history of substance abuse, was enough to get critics frothing at the mouth. Following a barnstorming pilot, a bidding war had broken out between the networks for the rights to the show, and as the new television season began all eyes were on Sorkin and the undoubted brilliance he was about to produce. Fey’s little show, whose only trump card was the fact that Alec Baldwin was included in the cast (not, in fairness, the sort of hand you want to be dealt), seemed likely at best to suffer in comparison, at worse be totally ignored.
Fast forward three years and things did not work out exactly as most expected. Sorkin’s show is ancient history, cancelled after one year during which its ratings quickly sunk under the weight of its own self-importance, while 30 Rock has gone from strength to strength. This second season was nominated for a record-breaking seventeen Emmys and picked up seven, including Best Comedy Series and Best Lead Actor and Actress for a Comedy Series for Alec Baldwin and Fey herself, while the show has already entered the cultural consciousness of the States – Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana and possible Presidential Candidate come 2012 was less then flattered recently when some in the media started comparing him to Kenneth the simple page boy, one of the series’s standout characters. With celebrities falling over themselves to get a guest part (Season Two has, amongst others, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Buscemi, Carrie Fisher, David Schwimmer, Edie Falco, Tim Conway and Matthew Broderick) and Fey herself listed among Time’s Most Influential People of 2008, the series has come a long way in a very short time.
The show's central dynamic is between Fey’s Liz Lemon, show runner of the SNL-like TGS, and Jack Donaghy (the brilliantly deadpan Baldwin, in a career-defining role), the network executive whose official title is Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming and whose principal aim is to squeeze out every last cent from the television station he runs. The conflict between Liz’s libertarian idealism and the harsh practical realities of commercial television is not dissimilar to much of what Sorkin railed against in Studio 60, but whereas that latter show bludgeoned you over the head with its message, complete with endless scenes of Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford spouting paragraphs of diatribe at each other, 30 Rock manages to make many of the same points both far more succinctly and, crucially, with considerable more wit. You won’t find a sharper satirical portrait of corporate America than Donaghy and the world in which he moves but the show has such a lightness of touch and sunny disposition that it’s sometimes easy to miss just how savage and contemptuous it can be of the targets in its sights. It’s also more realistic about the compromises which have to be made between artistic integrity and the ruthless practicalities of television ratings and demographics – ultimately, Liz and Jack's odd couple friendship is based on a mutual exasperated affection, even if they completely disagree with much of the other's viewpoints.
But to belabour its message too much would do the show a disservice – 30 Rock's principal aim is just to make you laugh, again and again and again. From its jolly jaunty opening titles on, it must be one of the happiest shows on the box, each episode twenty minutes of blissful insanity populated by an impressive number of instantly memorable comic characters. In addition to Donaghy, there’s Kenneth (the superb Jack McBrayer), a wide-eyed innocent from Hicksvillewho finds himself constantly defending his morals against the corrupting influences of the evil city, and Tracey Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the spoilt star of Liz’s show, a man who makes Paris Hilton look like Gore Vidal and who spends his days indulging his passions for strip clubs and grasping the wrong end of the stick. Not unlike The Office, the show is populated by a range of secondary characters who, although generally never coming to the forefront of the episodes, all have their own distinctive quirks and attributes, whether it be Frank the Neanderthal-like writer, Cerie the young PA who constantly inflames the ardour of the male writers with her revealing clothing and considers anyone over the age of about twenty-one to be ancient, or Jonathan, the Smithers to Donaghy’s Mr Burns, jealously protecting his boss and suffering through every crisis with him. (Having said that, quite what Scott Adsit, one of the show’s least interesting characters, is doing in the opening titles is a bit of a mystery.) The comparison to The Simpsons is not inappropriate – reflecting Fey’s background in sketch writing, the lightning quick speed of each episode is such that despite their short running time they can easily incorporate three separate storylines, while the number of throwaways gags (it’s always worth watching the background of shots to see who is walking by) means that the episodes bear up to repeated watches. It also helps that it's one of the most quotable shows on the box, most episodes jampacked with laugh out loud one-liners, whether it be the pearls of corporate wisdom from Jack or another warped insight into Kenneth's life back home on the ranch.
And, as mentioned above, despite its veneer of almost total stupidity, the show is actually very, very smart. Standout episodes in Season Two include the series opener Seinfeldvision in which Jack tries to edit in old footage of the comedian into new shows as a costcutting ratings grabber, Greenzo in which he attempts to exploit the cause of environmentalism for his own ends but finds it running out of control, Cougars which recasts the Iraq War as a conflict between two baseball teams, MILF Island which parodies Survivor and, for me the strongest episode, Somebody To Love in which Liz believes her new neighbour is a terrorist and which stands as a stinging rebuff and warning against the consequences of the alarmism of the Bush-Cheney administration. Indeed, bar the last couple of episodes which feel slightly weaker than the rest, this is a peerless season, as strong as the first and with a noticeable confidence and swagger about it. This is a show which is confident enough to have its characters suddenly break into song, or mock its own beliefs, or insert some very close-to-the-bone humour at times, and will have you smiling as happily and stupidly as Kenneth when he meets Jerry Seinfeld.
The fifteen episodes which make up 30 Rock’s 2007-8 season (which was foreshortened due to the Writer’s Strike) are presented on three DVDs, with the episodes on the first two and all the extras (bar the Commentaries of course) on the third. It sounds as though cramming seven or eight episodes onto one side is excessive, but given how short they are there are no signs of excessive compression in the Video transfer. The image is occasionally very soft however, and the contrast at times feels a little sharper than it should be, but overall it's okay, as is the Audio which, given the nature of the show, is hardly going to challenge your speakers. The one thing that lets the presentation of the season down slightly are the menu designs; the three options for the two episode discs - Play All, Episode Selection and Audio – aren’t visible all at once. Instead an arrow bounces between the three, meaning that to select one you have to wait for it to come round. Admittedly the wait time is only a few seconds, but it’s still an unsuccessful and needless attempt to jazz things up. The other big negative is that there are no subtitles of any kind to be found.
No less than ten episodes come with Commentaries. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they are almost all awful. Two feature Jane Krakowski (who plays Jenna, the female star of TGS) and McBrayer giggling through the shows which is nice for them but not much fun to listen to, although to give McBrayer his due on the episode in which he shares commentary duties with guest star Tim Conway, Subway Hero, at least he tries to get some tidbits out of the veteran comic. Two other guest stars offer solo commentaries. I’m not sure whether Will Arnett is trying for some kind of Kaufman-esque anti humour in his track for Jack Gets in the Game but even if he is it’s almost irredeemably awful, his track starting with heavy breathing and dragging out the twenty minutes with lengthy pauses and exciting observations such as “I like a cold Bud.” Almost as bad is Fred Armisen, who almost manages to ruin one of the season’s best episodes Somebody to Love with his attempts to be funny. Fey herself pops up on two, her solo effort on Sandwich Day bitty but the one in which she shares the mike with producer (and Mr Fey) Jeff Richmond on Episode 210 isn’t bad and actually manages to be informative. Producers Robert Carlock and John Riggi’s effort on Succession isn’t so much, and in the end the best track comes from Judah Friedlander (who plays Frank) on Cougars in which he mixes jokes and facts about the making of the episode. But mostly, worth avoiding.
There are five reasonably lengthy (for this show, at any rate) Deleted Scenes (4:29), a couple of which were obviously cut only for time as they’re as funny as anything in the show, and a couple of others that are a little drab. The ”Cooter” Table Read (31:25) is exactly what it says it is, the whole cast crammed into a smallish room to read through the season finale. This would be interesting except for the facts that it literally is them just reading through – there are no stops for directorial notes or line alterations – and that the image is crammed into the top half of the screen, the bottom half taken up with a scan of the script.
The best extra is 30 Rock Live at the UCB Theatre (46:48). The UCB is one of the most renowned comedy clubs in New York, home to several 30 Rock alumni including McBrayer who still performs there, and which held this live script reading during the Writer’s Strike for the benefit of 30 Rock staff members who were out of work. Using Secrets and Lies (the episode in which Liz meets Jack's Democrat girlfriend CC) nearly the whole cast took part in what looks to have been a raucous evening and is great fun to eatch, not least for the “ad breaks” in which we get to see McBrayer and fellow 30 Rock cast member (and SNL writer) John Lutz doing some improv. Tina Hosts SNL (8:04) follows one of her pre-Palin returns to the show which made her name, but is a little haphazard to be of much interest. An Evening with 30 Rock (23:09) is a collection of edited highlights of a cast and crew Q&A held at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and is reasonably good fun, although one wishes the whole thing had been included while finally, there are a couple of Easter Egg Bloomers (1:48), including McBrayer and Krakowski cracking up as they struggle with their Chinese lines in the season finale.
If you've not seen the series yet, immediately click one of the below links and order this set. In fact, no, first off go and order the first season, then come back and order this set too, as you'll be wanting more. The extras are a mixture of the fun and the not-so-fun, and the DVDs have the odd annoying quirk, but the series itself is so strong that it overcomes all.
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7 out of 10