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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?

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.

Writers Guild Strike In-Depth

November 4, 2007 1 comment

Writers Guild to Strike Monday

The more I learn about this situation, the more convoluted it seems. I know members of the Writers Guild of America are striking Monday because they want more of the digital piece of the pie when written work makes it to the Internet. Members of the guild are also striking for more residuals from the multi-billion-dollar DVD industry. That sounds simple enough… And fair.

Tina Fey is the creator, executive producer and star of NBC’s 30 Rock, one of the New York-produced series that will be immediately affected by the strike. This quadruple threat (known for her work on Saturday Night Live as the first female head writer, and her breakout hit with Lindsay Lohan, “Mean Girls”) is also a WGA member who writes for the series. Photo from geekfitters.com

Here is the official press release from the Writers Guild of America.

To start, I’m always nervous when guilds and unions strike, because it gets into that gray political area, and I’m never sure what the underlying reasons for the picket truly are… I mean, sure there are the public reasons, the ones that are stated without censure by PR gurus and union representatives — but then there are the reasons that are stated behind closed doors. Unfortunately, nothing is black-and-white with politics, and I don’t believe unions and guilds are always above reproach.

The WGA strike, however, seems pretty legitimate. I believe they have every right to want more for the product they provide. While I value all the working cogs of the Hollywood Machine – from the grips to the crafts services men and women to the producers, actors and writers – I have to agree that historically, writers have gotten the least amount of respect considering what they do for the industry. Actors, directors and producers are among the highest paid in Hollywood, and while writers are paid considerably for their services, it would seem they also get paid to not complain when their works of art are altered without their consent.

Apparently it’s not unusual for writers to be vastly ignored once they step foot in a studio; their creative control ends once they send in their edits, because as soon as the director and the producers get a hold of it (not to mention when actors are given the freedom to adlib), anything can happen. Let’s not even go into what happens when the editors sit down in their labs.

To be fair, writers know the risk going in, and the pay probably isn’t bad enough for them to leave. Still, I am a firm believer in the idea that television and film should be a collaborative meeting of the minds. I respect directors, producers, actors and editors for their contribution to the film industry. In short, I think they’re all brilliant, and as a media production student who would love to work in the film and television industry one day, I can understand their positions.

However, writers continue to lack the respect and, yes, financial advantages that others in the industry have. Yes, producers have been known to write, but if all producers were meant to write for the industry, there would be no need for writers in the first place. Writers are more often than not the first ones to nurse a new story to life, to research and develop it; they also tend to be the go-to people when edits need to be made in a pinch, or when actors have issues with the content; they are the ones whom few viewers know by name or face. I firmly believe something should be done to rectify this 70-year-old industry trend.

That said, I am disappointed that it came to this. This strike is essentially halting production on many programs. It won’t happen right away, and it won’t happen in droves, but it will affect many actors and crews. As The TV Zone blog on newsday.com stated, late-night television will be “gone. And quickly at that. And per my understanding, don’t expect someone like Jon Stewart to do a Johnny Carson – who left the air in the ’88 strike, but returned a few months later in May of that year. Stewart’s a member of the Guild and it’s inconceivable that he’d break ranks with fellow scribes.”

Also, according to the online publication, daytime soap operas could be facing re-run time after the New Year. Love ’em or hate ’em, the soap opera industry employs many who will more than likely be out of work for some period of time. The aforementioned strike in 1988 resulted in the producers writing instead, which kept the soaps on the air, according to latimes.com. Maybe that will be the case here.

 

Conan O’Brien is one of the many late-night funny men who will be affected by the WGA strike on Monday. Photo from tv.yahoo.com

So, what we have here is an issue that no longer just affects executives (who continue to get paid no matter what, bless their wealthy hearts), but it also affects crew members, or even writers who didn’t want to strike. In addition, I’m not even sure the contract issues the WGA is currently fighting have anything to do with soap opera writers, as their work does not make it to DVD or the Internet — legally.

Also, I’m not sure how the various unions support actors and crew members who are out of work due to a strike, and it’s entirely possible that they are required to be paid something while they beat the streets of Los Angeles and New York — mostly New York — looking for jobs. Still, I find it very ironic that the writers of Hollywood, in their quest to gain more respect, have essentially turned the industry on its head.

One other thing: It’s my understanding that executives are unwilling to raise residuals on DVDs because they’re not sure how sales will fare in the future. While I completely understand the logic in that business model, DVD sales are a very lucrative business for studios. It’s gotten to the point where a movie can essentially tank by industry standards in the box office, but rake in enough to make it a relative success in domestic and international/overseas sales, which include rentals and purchases. If I’m not mistaken, I believe the same can more than likely be said for television shows as well, which explains why the TV on DVD market skyrocketed a year or so ago.

I’m sure nothing is black-and-white, even in the WGA’s understandable attempt to gain more leverage. There may be more to the situation than meets the eye — in fact, I’m sure of it, considering WGA members haven’t been allowed to discuss their closed-door meetings since threats of the strike began. At the same time, they are honest grievances that are backed up by fact and historical precendent.

I hope the situation is secured in a timely manner, however, if only so WGA member Ajay Sahgal (video below) can stop stressing out. Poor guy.

Creating the Character

October 3, 2007 5 comments

When it comes to character development, television and film writers take various avenues in order to make lead characters compelling, easy to relate to, interesting and strong. While all roads may lead to a different destination, there are some similar paths that have been taken over the years.

One particular aspect of character development was brought to my attention a few years ago in an introductory film class. The professor claimed that women characters tend to have “Daddy Issues.” At first, in my immaturity, I balked at the idea. It didn’t make sense, I thought. How could all – or even most – female characters in television and film have these so-called “Daddy Issues?”

Then, when I got to thinking about it, truly analyzing the female characters over the past twenty years, it made perfect sense. For the most part, characters are greatly defined by their relationship (or lack thereof) with their parents. This is most obviously noted in women, but there are cases where men are defined by their parents as well. I’ll get to that later.

Women With ‘Daddy Issues’

As it stands, the vast majority of lead female characters who succeed in male-dominated fields, such as law enforcement, the military, and even the medical field, are initially defined by the relationships with their fathers.

 

Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) of The X-Files joined the FBI in an attempt to prove to her father that she could make independent life choices that resulted in success. Her desire to prove herself to her father is what drove her in her career, and ultimately what created a wedge between them.

Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie (Catherine Bell) of JAG followed in her father’s footsteps, both by joining the Marine Corps. and by becoming an alcoholic at a young age. Abandoned by her mother when she was small, she was left to endure her father’s emotional and psychological abuse. Like many of the other female characters listed, she was developed as a no-nonsense military attorney who never suffered fools. Still, again like many of the other female characters here, she was known as compassionate, ethical and strong. 

 

Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis joined the military to follow in her father’s footsteps after an emotionally detached childhood that resulted from her mother’s death when she was a young teenager. Her successful career in the male-dominated Air Force was solely independent of her father’s, but the desire to prove herself to her workaholic dad was one explanation for her driven nature and independence.

 

Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was introduced as a child of rape, so she never knew her father. Nevertheless, the driving force behind her character is the fact that she does not want to be anything like her father. For nearly a decade she has run away from biology, focused on helping people, and has questioned her capacity for violence.

 

Catherine Willows (played by Marg Helgenberger) of CSI lived a life of chaos in Las Vegas before turning to a career in forensics. Her enstrangement from her wealthy father led to stripping, poverty and a lack of self-worth. For approximately seven years, she has thrived independently in a fulfilling career, but the affects of her father’s poor treatment live on, and continue to be touched upon as further explanations of her emotional detachment.

 

Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) of Cold Case lived a rough life of poverty and abuse. Her mother was a drug addict and her father was rarely – if ever – in the picture. As one of few female characters on television today who are truly the lead character in a procedural drama, Morris’ Lilly is a strong, compassionate and independent woman whose hardships in life (as well as the lack of a strong male role model as a child) compel her to protect the lives of others.

Some Men Have ‘Daddy Issues,’ Too

As I said earlier, there are also some male characters who have been defined by their intense paternal conflicts. Some of them even belong to the series that were already listed.

Most notably, Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) of The X-Files had serious issues with his father, blaming him for the abduction of his sister, the subversion of the truth, putting his family in danger, and lying to him on a regular basis. Still, as has been the case with many female characters, there was an underlying layer of trust, a desire to please and protect his father at all costs.

Harmon Rabb, Jr. (David James Elliott) of JAG grew up never knowing his father. He was haunted by his father’s disappearance during the Vietnam War, and desperately went to great lengths to find the truth as an adult. As with Mulder, there was never true closure with his father, and it continued to define his character throughout. 

Women Seem To Lead, However

Essentially, from a traditional character development method over the past 20 years, when a lead female character is not being defined by her relationship with the male lead (i.e. Scully to Fox Mulder, Benson to Eliott Stabler, Carter to Jack O’Neill, or Willows to Gil Grissom), she is being defined by her relationship with her father.

While that trend isn’t as prevalent as it once was, it is an interesting aspect of television and film history to note, as I believe it is quite indicative of society’s expectations. Is it possible that, as a society, the audience expects there to be a very good reason to explain why a female is able to thrive in a man’s world, why she’s able to succeed and kick butt just as well as her male partner?

Perhaps it is on a subconscious level that audience members demanded such reasoning, or maybe it was equally subconscious on the part of the writers who needed to properly develop a character. Anything’s possible.

Personally, I can take the cliche problems lead female “X” supposedly had with her dad, if it means we’re still getting a capable, competent female character in the process.