A couple years ago, there was a study conducted to determine which television show presented the most realistic American family. The least reality-based show was, oddly, The Cosby Show, in which both the father and mother (Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad) managed to successfully raise several children while working two of the most demanding jobs in American history (doctor and lawyer, respectively). Even as the show racked up Emmy Awards, critical acclaim, and intense commercial success, some out there no doubt felt a slight gnawing feeling in the back of their minds, that there was a slight disconnect with the material when compared to what a real American family was like.
This same study concluded, however, that the most realistic portrayal of an American family on television was The Simpsons (something that‘s been echoed in other academic papers as well). At first, it may seem weird for an animated show with numerous musical numbers, outrageous trips to foreign countries (which are in no way financially feasible for Springfield‘s most famous lower-middle-class family), and fistfights with George H.W. Bush to resemble our real world in any way whatsoever, but once you look beyond the surface-level absurdities, The Simpsons can be staggering in its emotional scope (especially during its “peak” seasons in the ’90s).
The Simpsons dealt with everything from parents legally separating to sexual harassment charges levied against a family‘s breadwinner, juvenile delinquency to peer pressure at school, going through with a “sham marriage” simply for fame and going through the trails and tribulations of finding a dog for the family. Sometimes comedies, no matter how ridiculous or off-the-wall they may be, can give us the perfect mirror to our own lives …
… and such is the case with 30 Rock.
No, 30 Rock is not the most genius sitcom of the decade — that would be Arrested Development, thank you very much — but it does carry on a vein of absurdism that isn’t too far removed from the Bluth family and their three seasons worth of comedic exploits. 30 Rock is a workplace comedy, plain and simple, closer in style and in tone to The Mary Tyler Moore Show than anything else. 30 Rock rarely makes any “great statements” or falls into serious dramatic moments.
The guest stars (which are more abundant this season than ever, with Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Martin all stopping by) often seem to be letting loose and getting goofy during their episodes, as most all of them wind up playing semi-twisted versions of themselves (or at least their personas), not too unlike Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s Extras. It features Broadway musical adaptations of Mystic Pizza!, star Tracy Jordan’s frequently-inane celebrity requests (like holding a press conference simply to announce his interest in flying in space, hoping that someone listening can do that for him while also providing the $30 million to get it going), and — in one particular Season Three episode — Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon character nearly kills all of her staff in an arson attempt and sees no legal repercussions to speak of (then again, who would prosecute a woman who gets out of jury duty by pretending she’s Princess Leia?).
Yet even with all its industry inside-jokes and in-the-moment political cracks that is 30 Rock’s bread and butter (Season One made frequent references to the then-ongoing 2008 presidential election), Liz Lemon may very well be the most realistic depiction of a working single woman in sitcom history, holding its own in the looming shadow of Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards. Lemon has infrequent sex partners, remains unmarried despite encroaching on 40 (much to the surprise of too-hot TGS secretary Cherie), and frequently breaks under the pressure of juggling a demanding job (sketch-comedy writer/show-runner) while finding happiness in her own life.
After going “baby-crazy” during most of Season Two, Lemon seems to have finally realized that adoption might be her best option, and Season Three opens with the single worst visit with an adoption agent (Megan Mullally) in quite possibly the history of ever. Lemon then winds up dating a dwarf (the always-great Peter Dinklage) after mistaking him for a child from behind, befriends a pregnant teenage donut shop worker in hopes of having the baby in question to take care of (and erroneously appoints the teenager as TGS‘ “youth consultant”), and begins opening the mail of her ridiculously handsome new neighbor (Jon Hamm) in hopes that she can make herself the ideal mate by knowing his most intimate desires.
Liz Lemon isn’t just flawed: she’s fantastically flawed, and frequently suffers the consequences of her actions on a real moral scale. Liz frequently oversteps the bounds of proper conduct when it comes to these ethical issues (she accidentally kidnaps a co-workers child in Season Two), yet these mishaps (and her good enough sense to correct them) don’t paint her as a bad person — they just humanize Liz Lemon that much more.
It is this gravitas that gives the show its pull, and ultimately what makes the comedy work. Much like The Mary Tyler Moore show, the supporting cast doesn’t fall into easy stereotypes, either: Alec Baldwin’s frequently-brilliant portrayal of corporate suit/unlikely Lemon confidant Jack Donaghy is a dead ringer for Ed Asner’s hard-working/no-nonsense Lou Grant, much as how Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is a modern-day substitute for the ego-centric anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). Yet as easy as it would be for Donaghy to be a parody of Republican stereotypes, the show doesn’t let the character off the hook that easy, making Donaghy confront his own background when falling for the hard-working lower-class girl of his dreams (Salma Hayek) while then finding something that the Man Who Owns Everything doesn‘t actually have: his own father (Alan Alda).
The show’s moral center is — as always — the country-bumpkin page Kenneth Parcel (Jack McBrayer), who grounds both Jordan and the self-obsessed Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) during their various antics, which — in this season — are more abundant than ever, as Jordan and Maroney have developed a “Brian & Stewie”-type of symbiotic relationship, frequently supporting each other as much as they are warring with each other (which comes to a head in “Believe in the Stars” wherein they try to prove who has it harder in America by having Jordan dress up as a white woman and Maroney as a black man in order to make their point).
Yet even with all of these strong and relatable personalities, it’s the side-characters that wind up stealing virtually all of the scenes, ranging from Chris Parnell’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the misinformed Dr. Leo Spacemen to Scott Adsit’s positively flawless line delivery as producer Pete Hornberger (Adsit is nothing short of a punchline wizard). NBC counselor Jeffery Weinerslav (Todd Buonopane) is the latest addition to the stable of comedy standbys, and despite being featured in only three episodes, Weinerslav (pronounced “weiner slave”, he notes) already feels at home in the 30 Rock realm of ridiculousness.
If there’s any fault with the show, it’s that sometimes it’s too light, sometimes succumbing to formula instead of developing the characters in any significant way. Season Two ended with a well-done cliffhanger as Donaghy lost his coveted position as GE CEO to Devin Banks (Will Arnett), forcing Donaghy to re-evaluate his dedication to his employer for over three decades while also reconsidering the direction of his own life.
With Season Three’s ending, an emotional reunion with his father is usurped (somewhat) by creating a “We Are the World”-type song in order to get a kidney for his newly-found pop, resulting in a bevy of guest stars flooding the set (Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Mary J. Blige have great fun mocking themselves) but featuring very little in the way of capitalizing on Donaghy’s resurfaced feelings of childhood abandonment (same goes for Lemon coming to terms with her need for a child).
The three-DVD set for Season Three, however, offsets that disappointing conclusion somewhat by being overloaded with extras (as always), ranging from the complete “1-900-OK-Face” ad that Lemon did while trying to be an actress in Chicago with Maroney to featuring the show’s actor acceptance speeches at various award programs (if you didn’t see Tracy Morgan’s Golden Globe acceptance speech, you’re truly missing out). The deleted scenes are rather good if rather short (check the one for “Kidney Now” especially), and the commentaries are quite hit-or-miss (McBrayer and Hamm make some rather questionable jokes about “the Miracle on the Hudson” during the commentary for “The Bubble”), but, really, these quibbles are minor when compared to scenes of Krakowski attempting to launch a Janis Joplin-styled biopic that, for legal reasons, has to be changed to Jackie Jormp-Jomp.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to dismiss 30 Rock as being too fluffy or even not edgy enough, but the truth of the matter is that it provides a remarkably realistic view of the modern day working woman, despite the other-world absurdism that frequently surrounds Liz Lemon and company. Is the show flawless? Of course not. Yet if you can think of another network sitcom that has been as consistently and effortlessly entertaining as 30 Rock has been, well, you can just put it right in your Fun Cooker.