During a commercial break for Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, NBC aired a promo for their other SNL inspired program, 30 Rock. Alec Baldwin appeared next to series creator and co-star Tina Fey expressing great confusion as to which of the two programs he signed to do, clearly hoping it wasn’t the half-hour sitcom without the West Wing luster. The spot was funny but also demonstrated NBC’s fears that the shows could cancel each other out in the public’s mind, becoming one program featuring both casts called, Studio 30 Rocks The Sunset Strip.
The promo was self-aware and self-deprecating but was also only a set up for a much more surreal moment that took place during the 30 Rock premiere. Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, the head writer and producer of an SNL-styled sketch program titled The Girlie Show, is called into a meeting with her new boss, Vice-President of “East Coast Television and Microwave Programming” Jack Donaghy, played by Baldwin. After informing Liz that he is taking over her show, Donaghy goes on to elaborate on how his great success in promoting the new GE Trivection oven can be applied to late-night comedy.
This was not in itself surreal, but when the show went to commercial, it was not to the Geico Gecko or Subway Jared, but to an actual ad for GE’s Trivection ovens. At first this seemed to be a throwback to the initial “TV shock” SNL once delivered by placing fake commercials between sketches. However, this was an actual commercial, for an actual GE product. What we were now seeing was a hall of video mirrors: a network television show produced by a corporate conglomerate about a television show produced by the same corporate conglomerate featuring a character shilling the conglomerate’s real product between actual ads for said product shilled. Got it?
30 Rock, the fictional show, takes place and is partly filmed at the very real 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of GE-NBC-Universal. Toss in the fact that it’s superficially supposed to be set in the backstage world of SNL and features SNL alums Fey, Morgan and Dratch and you have a Trivection oven that can melt a Dali stopwatch in seconds flat. This kind of reality bending can also work in three ways: It can allow the network to shamelessly whore their products, give the writers the opportunity to mock those shameless whores openly, and let the audience both laugh at the self-awareness while still learning all about the new features of the patented Trivection technology. It’s the 21st century where we can have our cake and bake it too. Everyone wins.
Despite all this blurring of reality (or perhaps because of it), Fey wisely keeps the show from turning into the dirty laundry line of SNL. Outside of the surface details, like calling Morgan’s character Tracy, the show has very little to do with SNL itself. There is no Lorne Michaels character or a Belushi or Will Ferrell, no backstage revelations of coke binges or white parties with Paul Simon. Fey does not lean on these obvious crutches and instead focuses her energy on creating an honest to goodness modern sitcom with a female lead plagued on all sides by powerful or insane men. The show features a simple premise: After having her comfortable world turned upside down by the arrival of Donaghy, Liz has to agree to add certifiably-insane comedian and movie star Tracy Jordan to her cast as what microwave-programmer Donaghy calls the missing “third heat.” Jordan, the star of films with titles like Who Dat Ninja? and Black Cop, White Cop brings chaos and disaster with him at all times and seems convinced that the government is injecting AIDS into chicken nuggets. Liz has to juggle all this while also trying to find time for her personal life, which is apparently nonexistent. In many ways, this familiar premise could’ve become The Tina Fey Show with Fey freeze-framed at the end of the opening credits like Mary Richards, her own hat permanently suspended in pop-culture air.
The difference is that Fey isn’t interested in deriving humor from sharply drawn real characters. We’re not talking about the Allan Burns or Larry Gelbart school of sitcom writing here. We already know that Fey will “make it after all” but will she make it through tonight? The episodes are structured around broad screwball plots in which Fey is made to jump through all kinds of hoops to keep her job and/or her sanity. She’s put through this ringer by either Baldwin or Morgan or both. The humor emerges not from the predictable behavior of the characters but from the absurdity of the situations themselves. In one episode, Liz is basically forced to tour the city with Tracy and his entourage, ending up at a strip club, while in another, she’s sent on a blind date by Donaghy that turns out to be an attractive blond lesbian (Stephanie March). The fact that Liz is straight never occurs to Donaghy.
The cast is perfectly matched to this material. Baldwin, in particular, can play this kind of character in his sleep. He is hilarious and is stage-managed by Fey to swoop in and out of scenes like a kind of comedy special effect. See too much of him and it’s over the top. But have him pass by in a scene and tell a neurotic staff member to “relax your balls” and it’s perfect. The rest of the cast also understands how to apply just the right amount of exaggeration required for this kind of comedy. Even the last-minute decision to replace Dratch with Krakowski in the role of Jenna demonstrates a firm grasp on the material. Jenna is a “straight acting part” (to quote Fey herself), which is not the offbeat Dratch’s specialty. She will instead play a series of eccentric characters that will exploit her particular talents more effectively. This is a broad idea as well, but Fey seems to want it both ways, broad but with some feeling.
There have been moments in the season so far (Tracy’s brief stop at his childhood home; Fey talking about what it’s like to be a single woman in the city) that hint at a possibly more complex direction down the road. But to achieve this, Fey will have to develop her own character into someone the audience doesn’t only laugh at, but with. The perspective shift from satire to human comedy is large and perhaps only Chayefsky bridged it successfully. But Fey may have the time and breathing room to do so since NBC clearly has faith in the show as a “hit comedy” destined for a new “must-see” Thursday night line-up. It’s either that or they have faith in the show as the perfect place for GE product placement. Either way, everyone wins.