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30 Rock Is Still Underrated…

November 27, 2007 Leave a comment

Last week’s episode of 30 Rock has got to be a classic, if only because Tina Fey did what few people are willing to do so brazenly on a sitcom: Tackle racism in a way that makes you laugh.

NBC’s Emmy-winning 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey and Scott Adsit, may be too zany and witty for the average viewer, but it still packs a punch with critics each week. Photo © Broadway Video/NBC Universal Television.

Though the fear of terrorism has decreased somewhat on a national level, it’s easy to see why so many native New Yorkers will never be the same. The psychological effects of 9/11 and the Anthrax scares that followed will no doubt leave New York residents cautious and careful for years to come.

Unfortunately, even though New York City is incredibly diverse, the events of 9/11 still leave people wary of the potential terrorist around the corner. And, of course, the Patriot Act makes it a lot easier for the government to track down alleged would-be terrorists.

With such a serious topic on hand, one would think it’d be difficult to make it laugh-worthy. No so with Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, as her neurotic character, Liz Lemon, is suddenly bombarded with fears of a terrorist attack — most specifically by her suspicious-looking Middle Eastern neighbor, Ahmad, down the hall. He doesn’t make eye contact easily, he seems rather shady, and he won’t shake her hand. Her roommate and best friend Pete (Scott Adsit) questions Liz’s fears as racist and even hangs out with Ahmad, but she can’t seem to shake them.

At work, Liz’s uber-neo-con boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) tells her to “be an American – call it in,” and promptly gives her the phone number of one of his contacts. Check out the clip here!

Alec Baldwin (left), pictured with comedy guru Jerry Seinfeld in the second season premiere, has received both a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of oddball NBC/GE executive, Jack Donaghy. Photo © Broadway Video/NBC Universal Television.

It was interesting to see how Fey wrote Liz as initially concerned about discussing the situation in front of Jack’s assistant, Jonathan (Maulik Pancholy), who happens to be of Middle Eastern descent. His assistant is, as Liz expected, both shocked and appalled that she would stereotype, and Jack puts on a good show of being equally upset — until Jonathan leaves that is.

It’s a great illustration of how, no matter how much some people try to be politically correct, their honest feelings will eventually come out when they feel like they’re in safe company.

Still, Liz fights her fears and resists calling the authorities, until she catches Ahmad doing what appears to be some serious basic training in the park with his brother. Between the mysterious package that was accidentally sent to her door, the shifty eyes, and the the new exercises, Liz is finally convinced to call.

They work fast, and before Liz knows it, Ahmad is gone. His door is taped up after what could only be described as a possible raid. Not long after, she receives a package. Cautiously, she opens it up, sticks the enclosed tape in her VCR… and finds Ahmah’s audition tape for The Amazing Race. He and his brother love America, and were innocent all along. Liz is understandably floored by the mistake she made, but it’s the darkly hilarious reveal that makes it worthwhile.

Finally, Ahmad is returned, limped. He explains to Liz in the hall, after a chance and awkward encounter, that he was tortured. His last words are, “I just have so much anger inside now, that I want to do something… spectacular with it.”

Again, this is a serious topic that’s established in an oddly funny way. I believe the bulk of the message has to do with Americans and our fear of people who are different – specifically those who are of Middle Eastern descent. Racial profiling is an issue that affects many innocent American citizens every day, and by tackling the issue in an outlandish way, I believe Fey was making a statement, not only about her own fears of terrorism and of her prejudices, but also about the fears and prejudices of Americans. The execution worked perfectly, because it married comedy and truth, without preaching or lecturing the audience.

Here’s TV Guide’s Matt Roush’s take on last week’s episode, as he discusses the B-story of the episode, featuring Alec Baldwin and guest-starring The Soprano’s star, Edie Falco.

This was intelligent entertainment at its finest, as it addressed a real-life issue with more than a dozen laughs along the way. It’s unfortunate that 30 Rock hasn’t gotten the huge audience it deserves, though I imagine it’s the rapid-fire quips and the deliberate, over-the-top themes with cynical undertones that turns viewers off. People want easy laughs after all, and 30 Rock makes you think, concentrate and actually follow the story from beginning to end. Go figure.

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CBS Owns Television and My Faves Aren’t Cool

November 21, 2007 Leave a comment

I know it’s nothing new… CBS has been dominating TV for a few years now, and they do it with authority. Still, I can’t help but think back to the days when Touched by an Angel was CBS’ big thing, and when they hit the ground running with now long-running reality shows, Big Brother and Survivor, taking on the crest of a reality television wave that soon died out. Remember The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?… Good times.

I so hated reality TV, though. To some extent, I still do. I like my entertainment scripted, thank you very much. And I don’t buy the “reality” schtick one bit. Those gigs are so staged.

That said, reality television has its merits, and continue to play a large role in American pop culture today — as much as it pains me to admit it.

But, seriously, CBS used to be considered a network for old folks, to put it bluntly. Never did they have the wide breadth of programming that they do now. It was back when NBC consistently ruled the week on a regular basis, and fostered their “Must See TV Thursday” line-up with a two-hour block of strong sitcoms, ranging from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Seinfeld to Mad About You to Friends to Frasier to Will & Grace. All of that was followed by the popular medical drama, ER (which is now in its 14th season).

Mad About You debuted in 1992, and helped launch film careers of both stars Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. As a result, Hunt is the second actress to have won a Golden Globe, an Emmy and an Oscar all within the same calendar year; the first to do so was Liza Minnelli. Photo © In Front Productions and Nuance Productions

Over the course of roughly 15 years, starting in 1990 with Will Smith’s breakout series, NBC had a revolving door of choices that always gathered strong audiences. This, of course, does not even take into account the success of 80’s sitcoms like Cheers and The Cosby Show. As for the 1990’s, not one of the aforementioned sitcoms lasted less than six seasons, and one can’t turn on the television at any time of the day without finding one of these series airing in syndication.

Unfortunately, that control began to fade as these sitcoms began to die off, one by one. The Fresh Prince ended in 1996, Seinfeld in 1998, and Mad About You ended in 1999 — but not before stars Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were making a cool million dollars per episode in the last season (this precedent undoubtedly helped the six Friends stars achieve the same pay a few years later). NBC finally let go of the six-character show with seven-figure actors in 2004, along with Cheers spin-off, Frasier. And they only just called it quits on Will & Grace in 2006.

Friends stars (from L-R) David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Courtney Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston were, at one point, the highest paid actors in television. Known for their real-life bond, these actors helped keep NBC in the spotlight for a decade. Photo © Warner Bros. Television

It was a bitter release that seriously hurt NBC in the long-run. It’s not to say that their other nights weren’t successful, because they were. However, “Must See TV Thursday” was a staple of the network. Whether it’s by coincidence or not, once the sitcoms faded away, so did NBC’s control. By the time 2004 rolled around, CBS already had several Jerry Bruckheimer dramas in tow, including the three-pronged CSI franchise, Cold Case, Without a Trace and Close to Home. It would seem the Old Fogey network snuck up on us all and wholeheartedly earned control of our entertainment.

So far, CBS hasn’t been sharing much by way of viewers, unless it’s begrudgingly with ABC, another network that underwent somewhat of a revamping a few years ago. Both CSI and Grey’s Anatomy fight for dominance on a regular basis — that is, when American Idol isn’t on, the World Series isn’t in full swing, or Dancing with the Stars isn’t airing. Otherwise, they take turns for the Number 1 spot of the week. Ironically, both series air during the same timeslot on Thursday nights — a night with which NBC seems to struggle rather consistently nowadays.

Popular online website zap2it.com has the Nielsen’s list of Top 20 series for the week of November 11th through November 18th. Of the series listed, CBS has 11, ABC has 6, NBC has 2 (with their highest ranking being at 11 with Sunday Night Football), and FOX has 1. Seriously, it’s no longer much of a contest anymore, and the tables have certainly turned.

Talk of Grey’s Anatomy leads me to the conclusion that my shows just aren’t “cool” yet, even halfway through the season, while dramas like the one starring Ellen Pompeo continues to dominate. I’ve never gotten into it, but I absolutely love Shonda Rhimes’ other medical drama, Private Practice. I really can’t believe it’s only recently broken into the Top 20 spot, though I have my theories as to why that is.

For one thing, they don’t have sex all the time. Grey’s was built upon the sex lives of the young interns.

For another, three-fourths of the Private Practice cast are over the age of 35. The leads, a cast of geniuses really, don’t really cater to the preferred demographic I guess, which would explain why there wasn’t as much crossover between both Rhimes series as perhaps everyone expected.

Private Practice stars television veterans (from L-R) Taye Diggs, Audra McDonald, Tim Daly, Kate Walsh, Amy Brenneman and Paul Adelstein, along with relative newcomer, Chris Lowell. Photo © ShondaLand

It’s a shame, too. Kate Walsh, Audra McDonald, Amy Brenneman, Taye Diggs, Paul Adelstein and Tim Daly are all immensely talented. I don’t really care that they all seem to have a “been there, done that” air about them. It’s because they’re not playing sex-crazed, twenty-somethings that I enjoy them so much. No offense to Grey’s, because it’s a great show in its own right, but Private Practice is much more mature without the “mature” content. It’s been nearly eight episodes, and I’m pretty sure there’s only been one sex scene — if that. It’s rare for a show to go that long without nookie, and I applaud them.

Sadly, the same applies to my other favorite series, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty and Women’s Murder Club. None of them are in the top spots, they don’t have sexy, steamy characters in dramatic relationships, and that’s apparently what sells. That and crime dramas, like Criminal Minds and NCIS. Oh well. Thankfully they’re still performing strong enough to stick around.

Now, for spoiler junkies like myself, TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello has revealed some great scoop about some of the top-rated series on television (along with some other juicy secrets) here. You’ve gotta love this guy, if not for his fans.

If I could do last season all over again…

November 14, 2007 Leave a comment

… I’d have watched the show from beginning to end.

Knee-jerk reactions… In some cases, they can be a sign of excellent reflexes. In others, they can be a sign of immense ignorance.

Last season I wasn’t sure what I was going to watch, but I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t be tuning in for one particular series: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In fact, I made the decision early on. It was debuting to much buzz and fanfare over at NBC, and at times it stole the spotlight from Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which also premiered last season. I was irritated because I felt that Fey’s Rock had come first and that Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire drama, starring a very talented ensemble cast (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson and Steven Weber) was a gorgeously dressed knock-off of an original series that was developed and nurtured by people who actually worked in the business of sketch comedy. I was mildly bitter on Fey’s behalf, having been a fan of her work for a few years. In my eyes, 30 Rock was the underdog, and Studio 60 was the brawny big brother who easily got all the attention from the social elite.

It’s been suggested that Studio 60’s talented cast may have eventually cost the series when it came to its inflated production budget and waning ratings. Photo © Warner Bros. Television

And, to be honest, I wasn’t too far off. Compared to 30 Rock’s motley crew (no matter how deliberately crafted), Studio 60 had a beautiful cast. They were the guys getting most of the buzz, both from NBC and the critics. They also had Sorkin, who had just come away from his long-running, acclaimed hit The West Wing. They had the dynamic duo Matthew Perry, of Friends fame, and Bradley Whitford, also from the aforementioned Sorkin drama. Like Rock, they had snappy banter and long-winded monologues that seem almost too complex to have been concocted on the spot. Unlike Rock’s single-camera style, Studio 60 had complicated blocking in scenes and sometimes ethereal (perhaps sunset?) lighting that created a distinct West Coast tone.

On the surface, they seemed a bit too perfect. And I wasn’t impressed.

Unfortunately, neither were American viewers. The show was cancelled after being dragged out throughout the entire season in intermittent spurts — something that isn’t bad, when I think about it. I’ll elaborate on that later.

Fast-forward a year. I recently acquiesced, and finally purchased an iPod. This last weekend, on a whim, I bought the pilot episode of Studio 60, along with two others — just for kicks. I’d cooled off from my annoyance a year ago, and I was ready to give the intelligent drama a go.

To be frank, after seeing the first two episodes “Pilot” and “Cold Open,” I was blown away. Intelligent doesn’t even begin to describe it. I began to question my own sanity. Certainly a year ago maturity made a difference, but how could I have been so blind? Yes, Tina Fey’s half-hour comedy is brilliant and hilarious, but couldn’t I have found room in my viewing schedule for both? I mean, for crying out loud, they aired on different nights after all.

When Judd Hirsch, whom I’ve admired since his role as Alex on the 1980’s sitcom Taxi, performed that intensely volatile opening monologue in the pilot episode, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for fear of missing a beat. Like many others, I’m sure, I rewound the scene so as to get the full effect. I found myself doing that a lot actually… All the characters were quite compelling.

Bradley Whitford (left) worked with Aaron Sorkin for seven years on the Emmy Award-winning series The West Wing, while Matthew Perry is best known for his decade of work as the sarcastic Chandler Bing on NBC’s other Emmy Award-winning hit, Friends. Photo © Warner Bros. Television

Peet’s Jordan McDeere was as endearing as she was steadfast. As the president of the fictitious National Broadcasting System’s programming, she took no prisoners, but did so justly. There are few female leaders on TV like Jordan, who can be firm without being portrayed as an ice queen.

Perry’s Matt Albie was lovably neurotic and testy. With his self-deprecating humor, it would’ve been easy for the former Friends star to fall back into some well-rooted Chandler-isms, but Matt was a completely separate entity who probably would’ve gotten Perry an Emmy nod had the show been given another chance.

The same goes for Whitford’s honest-to-a-fault Danny Tripp, who is outed within the first episode for his recent drug abuse. Whitford’s solid portrayal of Perry’s other half was great. I believe he too could’ve been up for an Emmy had the series gone to a second season.

I was interested in Paulson’s portrayal of right-wing, Christian comedienne Harriett Hayes. This character may have been an artistic extension of Sorkin’s beliefs regarding the radical Christian right, but I like the fact that he made her an obvious protagonist. Alongside Paulson, Sorkin made Harriet a flawed, yet intriguing, character.

I could go on, but the show had a large ensemble cast outside of these four main players. Needless to say, the show was incredibly strong. I have no good excuse for not enjoying the series while it lasted. However, I think it does say something about the bar and level of expectations Sorkin and his cast and crew held, and how those expectations differed from America’s own threshold. This series was the epitome of quality programming. And while I’m sure it hit some rough spots, perhaps was a bit too serious, and lacked action, from what I’ve seen, it was an amazing show with superb characters. In short, it had a lot of potential. Here’s TV Guide’s Matt Roush feelings on the series finale, in response to a reader’s question.

Sorkin was accused of being too liberal. Unfortunately, it’s probably monologues like the one Hirsch delivered that drove away many viewers. Even well-educated viewers who make sixfigures a year (the demographic some networks seem to brag about to their advertisers as a last resort or alternative to the preferred  demos) might’ve been turned off by what some may have considered to be a liberal sermon of morality. I’m not one of those people, but I can understand why Sorkin had to tone the preaching down a bit.

For what the series lacked in the Laugh Out Loud department, it brought a lot of other positive attributes to the fore. For one thing, I think I learned more about network politics and shenanigans in the two episodes than I have in four years of college. Studio 60 contained humor that made you think — really think — about the underlying message.

In an attempt to rectify my egregious mistake last year, I will probably be buying Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on DVD as soon as possible. As I mentioned earlier, the series aired in random trickles throughout the season, which gave the show an opportunity to have roughly 22 episodes. There are those who still rave about the series, and others who remain skeptical. I’m willing to give it a shot now, if only to prove that I’m able to admit when I’m wrong. For all of the series’ shortcomings, it truly was intelligent entertainment at its finest.

Unfortunately, this means I have to turn over a new leaf and catch up on shows that I’ve deliberately neglected this season. Cavemen, anyone?

Strike Turns Hollywood Upside Down! Yikes!

November 7, 2007 5 comments

WGA Strike, Part III of ?

I know I’ve been talking about the WGA strike a lot lately, but I do have my reasons: This is an “intelligent entertainment” blog, and if talented, tenured writers are no longer producing content, there’s not going to be much entertainment in our future. Worse still, it probably won’t be all that intelligent, either. More than likely decisions will be made on the fly and off the cuff, by actors, producers and directors alike.

Heroes is reportedly filming a new ending to a December episode this week in anticipation of it filling in as a season finale. Photo copyright NBC Universal Television.

At this point in time, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, NBC’s Heroes and ER, Fox’s Back to You and ‘Til Death, and CBS’ Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and The Big Bang Theory are all halting production, among many others, as shown in the updated grid on latimes.com. The scary part is that many of the series listed in the table only have anywhere between three and seven more weeks of programming left before their done. I say “scary,” because TV is going to be inundated with unscripted, reality television shows come January, and I was so relieved when that trend took a downward turn. We can only hope that it doesn’t become uber-popular again. That would be the worst kind of irony for writers once this whole issue is resolved.

The way I see it, this strike could essentially cause one of two things. Short of costing Hollywood much more than the $500 million it cost them in 1988, it may bring crews together in that sometimes elusive, yet collaborative, effort to create quality programming. Without writers to do the work, others will have to step up to the plate. It could be downright inspiring.

Or, sadly, it could cause an even deeper divide in Hollywood.

So far, it’s looking pretty bright. Actors like Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, America Ferrera and cast members from The Office have reportedly expressed their support of the writers, though many of their colleagues have remained coy. According to Variety, executive producers have been “refusing to cross the picket lines even to perform non-writing chores on scripts that have already been completed.” It’s great to see that there is such a unified front from Screen Actors Guild members and executive producers.

The Hollywood Reporter has a great article that documents the back-and-forth debate between Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) president Nick Counter and WGA leaders. Make of it what you will.

It looks like many in the media underestimated how badly the strike was going to hit production on a variety of shows, but I think it’s a good sign that everyone is still supporting the writers. We’ll see how far that support goes in two months’ time, though it’s fairly clear which side of the debate is causing the problem here. Hopefully the writers will get what they want (and deserve) in a timely manner, so everyone can get back to work.

Still — and this is pure speculation here — I wonder if this may be drawn out longer so as to stop any chances of a precedent being formed. There’s been talk of a Screen Actors Guild/Directors Guild strike this summer, and maybe The Powers That Be are hoping it will be reconsidered, so as to prevent another huge hit like this. I don’t think anyone wants to see production halt from coast to coast, but if SAG members have justifiable reasons like the writers, it may be quite necessary. According to Firefox News, SAG president Alan Rosenberg was pretty confident, saying, “We’ll get what they get.”

For everyone’s sake, I hope that confidence is bankable.