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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.

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?