30 Rock takes its shots at corporate television. And why shouldn’t it? The cast of Tina Fey’s show, loosely based on her experiences at Saturday Night Live, includes SNL vets Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan, who have information to share with an audience who yearn to understand the inner workings of a television show.
Except there’s one problem: listening to a bunch of unattractive writers on 30 Rock complain that “the beverage situation around here is reprehensible,” a discussion that occurred early in the pilot, is boring. The behind the scenes workings of a television show aren’t glamorous. (See: the critically acclaimed but little watched Studio 60 on Sunset Strip.)
To pad out the script, Fey and her team deliver to TV viewers’ other craving—for stars. Or rather, they acknowledge the craving and complain about it. During the pilot, new network executive Jack (Alec Baldwin) decided that The Girlie Show, for which Liz (Fey) is head writer, needed more “flair.” He rambled on about “years and years of market research,” claiming the show did well with women, but didn’t appeal to men (and 18 to 34-year-old men are the favored demographic for all of TV, as everyone knows). His solution: hire affable but crazy Tracy Jordan (Morgan), who was introduced via a Martin-Lawrence-inspired news-clip flashback, running down a highway wearing only his tighty whities, shouting, “I’m a Jedi. I’m a Jedi.”
Liz reacted with understandable uncertainty, but the joke was on her. We know that Jordan, eccentricities in tow, will mesh into the group of misfits. He’s a star and everyone can see it. Charisma and talent conquer all, both onscreen and in real life. The network will get what they want, and it’s up to Liz to make it work.
Herein lies the rub of Rock. The fake television show mimics real life. Just as Liz battles the studio while trying to keep her show on track, Fey must balance herself between writer and producer. As the latter, she’s a slave to the demands of the Peacock. As the former, she’s free to mock the studio and these orders. She’s at once the Man and the rebellion. Hell, the poor woman didn’t even want to appear in the series she developed, but NBC made her. Star power, star power, star power.
The line that defines her responsibilities is blurred beyond recognition. In the interest of ratings, she understands the need for her to carry the show. Yet the writer in her wants to work on the script and not worry about acting. Fey is answering to too many bosses: her cast, her fans, her employer.
On SNL, Fey held the cast together with her exemplary writing. Though she hosted “Weekend Update,” she avoided the spotlight because the cultural importance of the show was bigger than one actor. Fans recognized the SNL name first, Tina Fey second. At Studio 8H, she was just the latest in the long line of talented head writers including Michael O’Donoghue, Seth Meyers, and Paula Pell. She could write more or less freely because her producers fought the battles for her. But her new show is a different beast entirely. As writer, producer, and star, she must please three different entities: viewing audience, network execs and her cast and crew. She has too much to juggle.
While this triple threat is nothing new, in a live blog after the premiere, Fey explained that the NBC people told her to write about her own life. Yet this is a fine line to walk. If she draws on any of her experience that was “too provocative,” she risks upsetting the higher-ups. If the plotlines are too bland, however, then the audience won’t be pleased. Whether Fey the writer lacked willingness to insert any “edgy” material into her show or Fey the producer removed it is irrelevant. The result is the same: a show neutered beyond relevance and devoid of entertainment value.
As a result, instead of digging deep and trying hard to win laughs from the audience, the first episode depended on stereotypes as a source of humor. Given the writing prowess Fey demonstrated on SNL, this cop-out is disappointing.
The worst stereotype in the premiere was Jordan, a thugged-out black male who dragged his posse to a fried chicken joint, claimed to “hate skinny women,” and spouted wisdom such as, “This show is our chance to break [the white man’s] shackles.” Morgan is fine, but the shtick isn’t funny. If anything, it’s borderline offensive. In the closing scene, Jordan jumped on stage and saved a disastrous episode of The Girlie Show by delivering a monologue including the line, “Uh oh, look at shorty. This honky grandma be trippin’.” As the audience responded with uproarious laughter, Jordan solidified his place in the cast and Liz regained control of her show from Jack. Problem solved.
But the best moment of Girlie was the worst one of Rock. Girlie‘s viewers are a reflection of us. They watch a television show that could be real. Yet, their laughter at Jordan’s simplistic shenanigans makes them look stupid. By association, Fey targets us as well.