Paddy Chayefsky would have loved it. The satire in Thursday night’s season return of the Emmy-winning comedy “30 Rock” skates so disturbingly close to the realm of profit-hungry possibility, it’s positively “Network”-worthy.
Chayefsky’s classic 1976 feature film script was an insider’s skilled satiric takedown of an oh-so-(im)plausible TV network that would do anything for ratings. Put psychics in prime time. Let its newspeople rant insanely. Maybe even kill.
So far as we know, that last hasn’t actually happened yet.
In NBC’s boldly self-inflicted “30 Rock” skewering, the network’s greed involves Jerry Seinfeld guest shots in every one of its series through October. As mad suit Alec Baldwin describes the concept to horrified comedy writer Tina Fey, performances by the network’s `90s cash cow have been “digitally captured” to enable, without Seinfeld’s participation or consent, computerized guest appearances on “Heroes,” “Law & Order: SVU,” even “Deal or No Deal.” Never mind such innovative reality outings as “Are You Stronger Than a Dog?”
Thanks to the odd bond forged over the first season between level-headed head writer Fey and gonzo/wussy exec Baldwin, she’s the one who ends up handling Seinfeld when he marches into NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza HQ to thwart the scheme. Jerry has cut short his vacation “in a country only rich people know about,” and he’s determined to confront Baldwin, even though the exec once saved his life from a shark. (Likely not in the actors’ shared hometown of Massapequa, Long Island.)
By the end of the half-hour, Tina’s in tears, Alec’s in tears and Jerry crashes the fourth wall to speak directly to viewers. The prospect of Al Roker in a bee costume has been brandished. Then there are the running subplots about Fey’s wedding dress (no, she’s not getting married), her comedy star Jane Krakowski being ordered to “lose 30 pounds or gain 60,” Tracey Morgan’s maniac comic taking on Jack McBrayer’s giggly page as his “office wife,” and Morgan’s self-involved character’s ministry among transvestite prostitutes.
After nabbing last month’s much-deserved yet unexpected Emmy as top comedy series, “30 Rock” hits the ground running as if to prove how justified the award was. Thursday’s episode, written by Fey and directed by Don Scardino, leaps so quickly into action that we seem to arrive in progress. After a few scant minutes, all the characters have been re-established so well that newbies will know precisely who they are, and the script then tackles the distinctive characteristics of its distinguished guest star.
Best of all, in an era when so many TV comedies lie there limp, waiting for you to figure what could possibly be funny about all this, “30 Rock” moves. It glides, actually, or maybe hops, from crisp scene to crisp scene. No wonder Fey wanted to do this show. After spending six seasons as head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” she could not only lampoon what she’d been doing but actually execute its comedic style one better.
No more struggling with bright sketch ideas that would flounder or peter out in search of an ending. The secret here is editing. The comedy of “30 Rock” is so tightly cut, it’s fill-free. Quick set-up leads to punchy payoff, and zip we move onward.
TV’s workings are now so transparent to backstage-sated viewers that a show like this is hardly an inside joke, either. Certainly the network’s recycling inspiration is no surprise. What might be is that NBC, once the Nielsen champ but now a lagging also-ran, has become so desperate for ratings that it will savage itself, with “Network” fury - more good-natured perhaps, but still poisonously pointed.
Paddy, this one’s for you.