Tina Fey, 2006–2013
There are a handful of hourlong dramas that I watch during the two months a year they're actually on, and I watch a lot of college lectures now that other universities have joined Berkeley in putting classes up on Youtube, but sometimes I don't have the mental energy for those sorts of things and just want to spend twenty minutes relaxing with a sitcom before going to sleep. I'd heard good things about this one, so I decided to check it out, and though I have very mixed feelings about it, I did wind up watching it all the way to the end. (Not all in one sitting.)
I'll start with the good. First off, every episode has several genuinely funny lines. They do tend to be the sorts of lines that work better on the page than when spoken aloud, but most of the actors are good enough to make them come out as deliberately stylized dialogue rather than simply ringing false. In any case, if a comedy can only have one strength, "the jokes are really good" is a pretty good one to pick.
However, this isn't 30 Rock's only strength. The show revolves around an appealing protagonist in Liz Lemon, who despite having a one-in-a-million job as head writer and showrunner for a network TV program, remains very relatable. Almost eerily so in my case, since we've made similar choices that have landed us in similar places: scraping out a career by writing stuff, living alone at age 40ish and feeling vaguely concerned about that while still prioritizing the writing… we even have the same under-25 romantic history (or lack thereof). I also very much liked the central relationship in the show, between Liz and her boss Jack Donaghy. Jack is a sufficiently well-drawn character that the show actually managed to make me like him despite his alpha-male strutting and one-percenter Republicanism: we see enough of his underlying decency and vulnerable spots that he can be at least partially forgiven. I imagine that there's probably been a fair amount written about the refreshing depiction of a friendship between an attractive straight woman and an attractive straight man that has no sexual tension to it at all — the show itself (in what I think is a misstep, since believe it or not I don't like meta stuff) hangs a lampshade once or twice on the fact that there is no "will they or won't they" between Liz and Jack. What I found equally cheering, though, was the depiction of a genuinely close friendship between people who aren't peers. It is very cool to see the show pull off the delicate balance between affirming the gap in life experience that allows Jack to be a helpful mentor to Liz while allowing them to become important enough to each other that Liz can serve as the best man at Jack's wedding.
The problem is that pretty much everyone else on the show is horrible. I mean, deliberately horrible. As in, the joke is, "See? See? It's funny because this person is so unspeakably horrible!" I guess there are a handful of exceptions: Pete's okay, if neurotic, and Danny is a pleasant fellow, though he disappears almost immediately, and Dotcom is fine. But Tracy Jordan is a two-year-old in an adult body — not even a regular two-year-old, more like the two-year-old who gets kicked out of the day care — and Jenna Maroney is an utterly insufferable narcissist. Yes, they get funny lines, but they're so intolerable to be around that it spoils the scenes they're in, and as they play the stars of Liz's show, they're in half the scenes! A lot of the other characters are live-action versions of Simpsons characters: Jonathan is Smithers, Dr. Spaceman is Dr. Nick, Kenneth the Page is Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. The characters who make up the writers and staff of Liz's show are portrayed as gross or annoying or both. It got to the point that I found myself having to do frequent reality checks. Like, was I forgetting that of course the characters were horrible people, because 30 Rock a comedy, and the characters on comedies are always horrible? But no — there are plenty of shows as funny as or funnier than 30 Rock with very likeable characters, so it is not the case that "ha ha, isn't it hilarious how much you want this person to fall down an elevator shaft?" is the sine qua non of the sitcom.
I said "the problem", and the punchability of nearly every supporting character is certainly the main problem, but there are others. I'm not a huge fan of a device 30 Rock uses a lot — I associate it with Family Guy, but my guess is that it was pioneered by shows before that — in which a character says something ("Remember when…"), and the show goes whoosh, and we see a little vignette of what the character is describing. I'm also not a huge fan of rolling out celebrity guest stars week after week the way 30 Rock does ("It's funny because I know who that is!"). But there's also this. In workplace comedies, the actual work often drops out of the mix at a pretty early juncture — what on earth did the last few seasons of Newsradio have to do with a news radio station, for instance? And considering that 30 Rock is about people putting on a weekly live comedy show on NBC, we see very little of that show or of the work that goes into it. What we do see is terrible. That is, 30 Rock tries to squeeze laughs out of the fact that these are the stupidest, least funny comedy sketches you could possibly imagine, all farts and projectile vomit. But when you think about it, this means that Liz Lemon is actually the world's worst comedy writer, and doesn't deserve her job. But the show doesn't really acknowledge this. It continues to treat her as the smart, sane, sensible one, the fully realized human being in a world of caricatures, whose talent is worthy of respect. It's weird — I guess the way it works is that since we know that Tina Fey is smart and funny, we just transfer that opinion over and take it as read that Liz Lemon is also smart and funny. Which she is, in conversation. But based on her show-within-a-show, she's really really not. The net effect is like a version of Ed Wood in which not only does Ed Wood himself not realize that he's a terrible director, the movie doesn't realize it either.