I love Tina Fey, and have since before she was popular. I was thrilled when 30 Rock, her semi-autobiographical NBC sitcom about life backstage on a comedy show, became a critical and awards-show hit. I even lauded the show for its apt depiction of the varieties of workplace dissatisfaction. But as the show that cemented Fey’s upper-stratosphere stardom, won her national critical acclaim, a raft of Emmys and smart-girl cheesecake magazine shoots makes its way into its fourth season, there’s a small but growing sense that 30 Rock may be lost.
Nathan Rabin, who recaps the show for The Onion A.V. Club, suggested after the fourth season’s second episode on October 22, that the show has become a victim of the expectations it set for itself:
For its first two years it operated on a higher evolutionary plane than ninety-five percent of television. It wasn’t just funny, it was laugh-out-loud, watch-three-times-back-to-back so you don’t miss anything…super-genius. I didn’t go from being a super-fan to a skeptic over the course of three episodes. But there was a pronounced drop in quality in its third season that has grown more extreme as the show has stumbled unsteadily into its fourth season.
I’m afraid I have to agree with Rabin’s assessment. The show is listing badly these days for a number of reasons – its failure to fully use its strong mix of actors, the choppiness of its storylines, its increasing reliance on weak gags, and, above all, the fact that its strong first two seasons moved the relationships between the characters so far forward that they’ve run out of places to go.
The show has made something a joke of the diminishing roles written for the fine group of supporting actors. In this season’s first episode, Jack Donaghy, the NBC executive played with great brio by Alec Baldwin, declares that the show Liz Lemon (Fey) runs needs a new actor to spark audience interest. “What about Josh?” Lemon asks hopefully, referring to a character whose role—both on 30 Rock and on the fictional TV show 30 Rock is about—has shrunk dramatically since the first season. “I forgot about that guy,” Jack declares, in a nod to 30 Rock fans who have noticed the decline in Josh’s screen time. “You think that’s a good sign?”
It’s a joke, but it’s not particularly funny. 30 Rock has also made less and less use of Pete, Liz’s producer and frequently hilarious straight man who memorably decided he feels more confident in a Stone Phillips wig; Twofer, a black Harvard graduate who plays a writer for the show, and serves as a frequent foil for Tracy Jordan, the show’s eccentric black superstar; Cerie, the ditzy blonde receptionist with an aversion to bras and surprising insight into the politics of the Greek Orthodox church; and Grizz and Dot Com, Tracy Jordan’s entourage. Reducing all of those roles requires the main characters, particularly Fey and Baldwin, to do more work, while giving them less to play off of, and diminishing the richness of the backstage atmosphere.
The show also picks up and abruptly drops plotlines with maddening abandon. Liz’s desire to have a child led her to go through a rigorous and hilarious adoption screening process in the third-season premiere—a plot line that largely evaporated from the rest of the season. And while the show can’t seem to stick to a plot, it has managed to stick to a repetitive shtick lately about Liz’s weakness for junk food—a device as annoying and implausible as Tina Fey is tiny. 30 Rock has also recycled Jack’s rivalry with a younger executive, played by Will Arnett, to the point of oblivion: Arnett’s mere appearance onscreen is by now supposed to be enough of an implied joke that no accompanying conflict or plot line is required.
Perhaps the biggest problem for 30 Rock is that the narrative conflicts established in its first season have largely been resolved. Jack is no longer the new executive dropped in from above to meddle with the show. Instead he’s Liz’s mentor and occasional co-conspirator, someone who pats her on the back with a broom when she has food poisoning in a Georgia motel, and blurbs her book with the quote “Lemon numbers among my employees.” Tracy, the unstable black superstar who joined Lemon’s show (to the consternation of the writers, producers, and other actors) in 30 Rock’s first episode, may still be a disruptive force of nature, but he’s no longer the enemy: his status as an audience draw and his willingness to present them with gold nunchucks and chinchilla coats as thank-you gifts have long since basically won them over.
There aren’t any major outstanding conflicts between the show’s core characters to resolve or develop, and the show has let some potential new directions, like sexual tension between Jack and Liz, lapse entirely. The search for a new cast member is a plotline that—for now—seems to be sticking. But it’s impossible to imagine that any new cast member will have the gale-force impact of a boat-stealing, hallucinating, pornographic video-game designing Tracy. And no new executive could possibly bring as much charm and sarcasm to the process of wreaking havoc with 30 Rock’s fictional television show as Alec Baldwin.
It’s easy to forget what an underdog 30 Rock was when it made its debut in 2006. That same year, Aaron Sorkin, creator of the acclaimed West Wing, also launched a new show about the backstage workings of a comedy show. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was widely expected to crush 30 Rock in the ratings, perhaps also quashing the career of Tina Fey, then the Little Saturday Night Live Writer Who Could. But 30 Rock lived while Studio 60 died because Fey understood comedy better than Sorkin did, and because while he saddled well-regarded actors with less than compelling material, eliciting leaden performances, she recruited actors in the lacunae of their careers into an anarchic—and alchemical—ensemble, reinvigorating Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin’s careers, and sending her own into the stratosphere.
That success provided a template for a number of sharp new half-hour sitcoms with a sense of the absurd that have risen up, if not to challenge 30 Rock, then to capitalize on its market share. Two especially strong entries in that market – Community and Modern Family—debuted this fall. These shows’ novelty may wear thin as the seasons pass. But at least for now, their newness gives them an advantage—which means that if 30 Rock wants to compete, it will need the sharp, focused writing that brought so many idiosyncratic jokes and uproarious scenarios to its early seasons.
But at the moment, the tack 30 Rock is taking seems to more closely mirror the shortcut approach Jack is taking with his fictional TV show: rather than putting in the work to raise the show’s quality, he’s content to resort to cheap gimmicks. As he declared in the first episode this October, "We'll trick those race-car-lovin' wide loads into watching your lefty, homoerotic propaganda hour yet!" 30 Rock is supposed to be a comedy, but that’s just depressing.