Tina Fey’s behind-the-scenes sitcom 30 Rock, about to enter its second season, is many things: one of the best comedies on the air; whip-smart and hilarious in all the ways Studio 60 wasn’t; in possession of a fine comic ensemble. But after rewatching many episodes on the recent first-season DVD box set, one major standout is its utter New Yorkiness.
Liz Lemon (Fey), head writer at late-night sketch show TGS, doesn’t just have to deal with new corporate boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), network-mandated sketch star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), or neurotic best friend and TGS co-star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), but any number of everyday obstacles of making a living in the city.
Many sitcoms are set in New York City, of course, and they pay lip service to its many challenges. But 30 Rock, alien and surreal as its show-business world can be, is more adept at catching the feeling of actually living in New York, moreso than any show since Seinfeld. It even does Seinfeld one better by actually shooting in the city: its studios are in Queens, and many episodes include characters walking around the actual streets of Manhattan.
Some might cite Sex and the City as a definitive post-Seinfeld New York comedy series, and that beloved show is obviously not far from Fey’s mind. In the 30 Rock episode “Cleveland”, when Jenna, Liz, and Jack’s fiancée have lunch, Jenna says to Liz that “it’s just like Sex and the City... I’m Samantha, she’s Charlotte, and you’re the woman watching at home.” Liz’s status as a living rebuke to Sex and the City fabulousness was clearly adopted by fans: during an online chat on 26 April, a viewer asked Fey if Liz was the anti-Sex and the City. Fey replied, “yeah, she’s kind of the opposite… I really like that show, but it was total fantasy time…crazy clothes, crazy lifestyle. We’re a little more realistic.”
“Realistic” might not be an obvious descriptor of a show whose first season includes episodes about an inbred Austrian prince named Gerhardt (Paul Reubens, naturally), or a secret conspiracy group called the Black Crusaders who blackball undignified African-American celebrities. But beyond its inspired absurdities, the show is full of snappy, offhand New York references, from dead-on name-dropping of local news (New York One, the Fox 5 Problem Solvers), to jokes about man-on-the-street commercials for crappy musicals (in this case, Tarzan on ice), to Jack’s admission that he hasn’t been above 72nd street in over a decade. The show perfectly balances New York’s delights (the scenery, the diversity, the energy) with its many hostilities (in “Cleveland”, Liz considers a move to Ohio after a homeless man spits into her mouth on the street).
By the middle of the season, you realize it’s this spirit that turns 30 Rock from mere farce to a show with a recognizable voice and point-of-view. Fey, who has writing credits on about a third of the episodes, makes parallel improvements in her equally delightful performance. Initially she’s overshadowed by Baldwin’s brilliant work; Jack gets many of the best lines while Liz spends the first few episodes mostly groaning in frustration and occasionally falling down. But by the time she spoofs Pretty Woman in “Black Tie”, seductively shows off her flannel pajamas with tissues in the pocket to her new boyfriend in “Corporate Crush”, and drops several Star Wars references throughout, her mix of wit and nerdy awkwardness has become as winning as vintage Mary Tyler Moore—in other words, that elusive alternative to anyone who found Sex and the City‘s inner-borough, high-heeled sensibility a little smug.
The extras on the DVD set are in keeping with 30 Rock‘s energized spirit, but not as fully realized as the tightly-wound episodes. “Evening with Kenneth” is a set of in-character shorts, with NBC page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer, hilariously guileless) conducting a homemade talk-show; they’re funny, but seem like they were dreamed up in about 10 minutes.
McBrayer, a breakout star on the show, also gets a single episode commentary to himself, as do the other principle players: Fey, Baldwin, Morgan, and producer Lorne Michaels (accompanied by his son, a staffer on the show). The one-off approach to commentaries is novel in that it gives their individual personalities room for expression. This is especially welcome with Fey, alternating praise of her coworkers with relaxed mock put-downs (Baldwin “likes [his hair] long and slicked back because he’s from Long Island”). But an actor like McBrayer sounds like he’s searching for someone to play off of. The best extras are the deleted scenes, just because they give us a few more minutes in 30 Rock‘s screwball rendering of New York, postcards tiding us over until season two.