Quality and popularity aren’t always synonymous. Or put simply, people love rubbish. When the British were asked in 1999 to vote on the most significant moments in television, they proved that the public aren’t to be trusted over matters like this. Del Boy from Only Fools And Horses falling over in a bar was ranked higher than Live Aid or the assassination of John F Kennedy. And if that wasn’t proof enough, an elephant called Lulu emptying its bowels on the floor of the Blue Peter studio was, according to the British public, a more significant, jaw-dropping and momentous televised moment than watching the Challenger space shuttle explode live at tea time in the mid 1980s, the Tiananmen Square massacre or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. If you’re wondering what Blue Peter is, don’t worry, it’s just some cheap children’s programme that the BBC made earlier.
A person is intelligent, but people are stupid. But sadly, the viewing figures of what the public watches and what they want to see decide which programmes stay and which are axed. But somehow, the brilliant 30 Rock has slipped through, despite pretty dreadful viewing numbers in the first season.
It’s not one of the most significant moments in television, but the fact it still exists is wonderfully significant in its own way. Its ratings in America during the first series were really poor, with fewer than four million people watching, largely because most viewers were following the increasingly asinine soap Grey’s Anatomy on the other side. But among the soaps, reality shows, karaoke and talent contests that constitute the majority of primetime television, there was this little comedy that succeeded despite the public largely, and sadly, ignoring it. It was like The Little Engine That Could. The critics (who are forced to watch everything – just like children being forced to try food they know they’ll hate, but then discover they love) realised that 30 Rock was one of the best things on the telly, but most other people missed out on the fun.
In the show’s first year, it ranked at 103 in the Nielsen Ratings, meaning that there were 102 shows that were watched by more people, but it managed to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Rock stars Comedy Series. In her acceptance speech, the star, creator and co-writer, Tina Fey, teasingly thanked ‘our dozens and dozens of viewers for supporting the show.’
The Emmy was deserved, but the comedy almost succeeds despite itself. Fey was a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live, and with 30 Rock set behind the scenes of a SNL-type show it could have worked against her. The show’s title comes from a nickname for 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC’s New York City headquarters and studios. Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is the head writer and has to deal with the mentally unstable star, played by Tracey Morgan, who was also one of the SNL cast. So if you’ve ever watched SNL, then this has an eerie feel to it that takes a few episodes to wear off. It co-stars Jane Krakowski, who you may remember (or indeed, be still trying to forget) as Elaine from Ally McBeal. When you’re the most irritating character on Ally McBeal, then you know you’re in trouble, but, despite being as welcome as a hemorrhoid on the Tour De France, in previous comedies she’s pulled it around and nailed this role. As has Alex Baldwin, who’s been great for the last few years, and is at the peak of his powers here as Liz’s insulting and Republican boss. But still, Alec Baldwin as a regular in a sitcom was a huge gamble.
The oddball cast somehow makes it all work, while Fey, though her harried wit and semi-nerdy persona (‘Tell me or I will cut you open like a Tauntaun!’) has become one of the unintentionally sexiest women on television.
It’s prepared to be goofy in a way that only Scrubs regularly does, but without the overly cutesy tone. This is cynical without being cold in a way that Seinfeld was – the product placement gags are a perfect example. Thanks to TiVo and other digital video recorders, nobody watches adverts anymore, so networks make money through selling product placement. The Office (US) has had over 300 of them this season, but they’re mostly left subtly in the background so you barely notice them while, conversely, 30 Rock not only acknowledges some of them, but sticks two fingers up at the same time. In an episode where the writers are angry after being told to plug products in the show’s script, they all stop for over-the-top Snapple breaks and tell each other how they love the drink. Later on, cast members will start talking totally out of context about a brand of mobile phone, before Fey looks right into the camera and asks, ‘Can we have our money now?’ Few shows could break the fourth wall like that, or openly lampoon products and get away with it, but 30 Rock does.
So come on people, let’s make 2008 a year when good television is also the most popular television, so they don’t stop making it. If it bothers you that Arrested Development was cancelled after three series, but Last Of The Summer Wine is currently filming its 29th series, then I’m talking to you. However, if you’d rather watch AC Slater from Saved By The Bell and the spoilt one from Beverly Hill 90210 try and cling to the last vestiges of their withering fame in a dancing contest, then you don’t really need a television anyway, you need a hobby because these are things you could actually go and do for yourself.
Why watch dancing on reality TV when in reality you can really have dance lessons yourself? Or go and do karaoke. Or learn to juggle. Or go on a diet. These aren’t great subjects for television, they’re things to do yourself, but then the public love to watch other people do them because the mass populace often has very strange ideas of what makes moving television – see elephant bowel/Blue Peter studio floor incident above. But do take a chance on 30 Rock. It’s the ugly duckling that didn’t become the beautiful swan, but instead learned to be funny so the bigger ducklings wouldn’t bully it.
Along with The Office and My Name Is Earl, the NBC station has given us some outstanding comedies over the last few years, so this comes from a network with good previous form, but there’s really nothing quite like 30 Rock out there, and in 2008 a bit of originality really should be rewarded.•
For Time Out Magazine, January 2010.