3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The Golden Globe, Emmy award-winning comedy "30 Rock" is a modern day "Mary Tyler Moore Show" with star Tina Fey as the virginal, innocent (well, mostly) and trusting Mary, and Alec Baldwin as grumpy boss man Lou Grant. Jane Krakowski is a less malignant and self-centered Sue Ann Nevins, Scott Adsit mirrors Murray, the seasoned producer, and Jack McBrayer fits the role of good-natured, two-below-plant life-I.Q.'ed Ted Baxter. Guess that makes Tracy Morgan a homeboy version of Gordie the Weatherman. You get the picture, the only real difference is nearly forty years, more liberal censorship rules, and instead of acting out their lives in a newsroom, the characters at 30 Rockefeller Center play out their existence on the set of a fictional NBC TV show. Whether it brings back memories of Mary or carves out its own niche in your heart, "30 Rock's" misanthropic point of view beats out a lot of the empty headed bathroom humor that's infested the tube (although there's plenty of that on display too.) "30 Rock" also topples current taboos, such as homeland security, liberal Democrats, uptight Republicans, and our love for power, greed and celebrity, while fielding other pressing issues in life, such as hard-core coffee addiction, hoagie-stuffing gluttony, chunky chick charm, and what to do with a $4,000 wedding dress you'll never use.
Those issues, and many others, are satirized in the 2 DVD, 15 episode set of 30 Rock's second season, which includes deleted scenes, cast commentary, and a live benefit performance at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater.
For those who don't know, the industry insanity at 30 Rock centers around network executive Jack Donaghy (Baldwin), writer Liz Lemon (Fey), NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), and the stars of "TGS With Tracy Jordan," Tracy Jordan, (Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Krakowski). Rounding out the show are the producers and writers of "TGS," Pete Hornberger (Adsit), who enjoys "dating" his wife in Liz's bedroom; Frank (Judah Freidlander), who assists Tracy in creating a video porn game, and spends three months in his office; Cerie (Katrina Bowden), the flighty office hottie, and snippy Harvard graduate Toofer (Keith Powell).
Although "30 Rock" may not be a new idea, and there's nothing that'll make you roll around the floor the way Moore's "Chuckles the Clown" funeral episode did, there's plenty on the 2 DVDs that rocks. Each episode has two or three plots spinning off of one another, so if Jack's jibes don't jive, then Liz Lemon's loser luck might. Among the memorable episodes is "Rosemary's Baby," in which Liz meets her heavily medicated, rebellious childhood idol and insists she write for the show. Meanwhile, Jack helps Tracy gets to the bottom of his rebel nature through role playing - with Jack playing all the roles.
"Somebody To Love" introduces the character of C.C. Cunningham, a liberal, relentless congresswoman who favors pants suits (sound familiar?) and is after Jack's corporate sponsors for turning the children in a small town orange. While Jack and C.C. trade insults (and, of course, mutual passion), Liz Lemon keeps tabs on her sour-pussed Middle Eastern neighbor, whose apartment walls are covered with maps dotted with push pins and insists, "Soon everyone will know the name Raheem Hadaad!"
Tina Fey (a/k/a the Six Million Dollar Woman) is the show's star and chief writer. Fey recently parlayed her striking resemblance to The Wicked Witch of The West (Sarah Palin) into several highly rated appearances on her old show, "Saturday Night Live." Fey is such a hot commodity, she's been offered 6 million for a bio book she doesn't have the time to write. Fey's endearing, not only because she has that saucy librarian look going -- her character's also a smart career woman and an adult (for the most part) amidst a sea of degenerates and lovable morons. Like many of the best old time comedians (Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball), Fey makes her love life, quirks, and foibles fair game for jokes, and she capably serves as the show's straight woman.
Alec Baldwin may not be Shecky Greene, but for a guy who consistently says the wrong things to the press, has publicly traumatized his daughter, and has had his share of embarrassing scrums with ex-wife Kim Bassinger, Baldwin has somehow managed to revive his career as an idiosyncratic wit. He's the new William Shatner, a guy who seems to take himself seriously, but is really playing the role of a stuffy, self-centered egomaniac for laughs. He's Christopher Walken before Mr. More Cowbell realized he was funny. One of Baldwin's many hilarious bits in "30 Rock" occurs in the "Rosemary's Baby" in which Jack tries to help Tracy get in touch with his feelings about his Dad while quelling his rebellious nature. Jack acts out a conversation between Tracy and his family, making Tracy's Dad sound like Fred Sanford and delivering so many other diverse impersonations you'd swear he was Mel Blanc. What really makes Baldwin's Jack work are his curt, bohemian comments. It's hard to believe this is the same grim actor who was so heroic in "The Hunt For Red October" opposite Sean Connery. He deserves whatever awards and statues he's probably using as doorstops.
Tracy Morgan's real life struggles with alcohol may not be amusing, but his character's are. Morgan's mischievous man-child malaprops aren't always on target, but he'll occasionally raise a smile, as in "Subway Hero" when he tries to fix his CD player with a screw driver and momentarily shocks himself into the afterlife. There he meets up with President Nixon (Baldwin, showing a talent for impersonating dead presidents) and Sammy Davis, Jr. (a groovy Keith Powell), who convince him to stump for the Republican Party.
Jane Krakowski is the show's unflappable consummate pro. The fact she has a radiant smile and boundless energy (not to mention perfect pitch) helps. In another actresses' hands, Jenna Maroney would be a channel-changer - she comes on, you change the channel. Jenna is self absorbed, vain, and determined to stay in the public eye. By portraying Jenna as somewhat oblivious, Krakowski is able to play Jenna's negative attributes for laughs. Her funniest bit involves her noticeable weight gain during the show's hiatus. (She appeared in a stage production of "Mystic Pizza" and ate four slices a night. "That's thirty two slices per week!" Fey exclaims.) At first, Jenna bows to Jack's demand that she lose weight ("She either has to lose thirty pounds or gain sixty. There's no place on television for anything in between.") Jenna crash diets, risking her health: "I'm on the Japanese porn star diet," she says. "I can only eat paper. But I can eat all I want." The other writers want to play up Jenna's increased girth, suggesting she utter the phrase "Me want food!" in a sketch. Upset at the suggestion, Liz Lemon insists they showcase Jenna's talents, and gives in when she wants to try her hand at roller skating. When Jenna crashes into the set, she quickly rights herself, saying "ME WANT FOOD!" to the uproarious approval of the crowd. "Me Want Food" becomes the catch phrase of the day, appearing on T-shirts and making Jenna a bigger star than she was before. She also becomes the spokeswoman for Enorme Perfume ("Chase the chunk").
Jack McBrayer is the lovable, exasperating country bumpkin Kenneth Parcell, who's devoted to his duties as a studio page. There's plenty of Deep South Bible belt in his mannerisms and speech, and cornpone comedy in his naiveté. McBrayer, a member of the Upright Citizen's Brigade, is at his best in "Ludachristmas" when he tries to teach the staff the true meaning of Christmas by kidnapping them and forcing the to listen to a sermon by his hometown preacher.
Minor characters like Pete and Frank have their moments, but the show's biggest short-term superstars are Grizz Chapman and Kevin Brown, who play Tracy's bodyguards, Grizz and Dot Com. They're hulking black men with sensitive sides, so much so they go the departmental geek with inside information so he'll think they're cool. They're also intellectual. When Jack tries to get Tracy endorse the GOP, bragging that Lincoln was a Republican, Dot Com points out that the 16th President wouldn't recognize today's crooked party. Chapman and Brown in particular are the shows unsung comedians. Watch them literally step up to the plate in "Cougars" in which Tracy coaches a little league team in Knuckle Beach, the worst neighborhood in New York. You'll also get a chuckle when they back up Morgan, Krakowski and McBrayer's take on "Midnight Train to Georgia."
Surprisingly, the many name guest stars appearances actually drag the Rock down. Jerry Seinfield isn't funny as himself in "SeinfeldVision," just shrill. When you're not funny as yourself, that's a real problem. Steve Bushemi plays a private eye hired by Jack to investigate...Jack! For the sake of future employment Steve, see a dentist. Watching David Schwimmer, (wimpy, whiny Ross on "Friends") act is like poking an exposed nerve with a jackhammer. He plays "Greenzo," an out of work actor tabbed to be a green mascot for NBC who gets too into his role. Tim Conway proves once again that outside of "McHale's Navy" and "The Carol Burnett Show" he's really not that funny. He plays Bucky Bright, a forgotten star from the 40s, who's so maudlin he even bores Kenny Purcell. Yeah, he got an Emmy for this poor performance, but I'm convinced there was a missed communication. They really wanted to give him an enema. A few more rambling appearances like this and Conway really will be a forgotten star.
Matthew Broderick's turn as Cooter Burger, a government lackey stuck in a leaky basement, is as painful to watch as his ear-to-ear paparazzi sessions with wife Sara Jessica Parker. Elaine Stritch is dusty, creaky and cranky as ever as Jack's sour mom in "Ludachristmas." Fortunately, her bitterness is balanced in the same episode by the chirpy performances of Buck Henry, Anita Gillette, and Andy Richter as Liz Lemon's All-American family. Edie Falco paid her dues on "The Sopranos," looking as if she was sucking on lemons and passing prunes, while dealing with one of the most severe prisoner of war haircuts I've ever seen. Falco plays a thinly disguised liberal Hillary Clinton-like character that Jack, Mr. Staunch Republican, falls for. It's nice to see Falco smile, mug for the camera and even chip in a few lines of "Midnight Train To Georgia."
Out of all the guests, Carrie Fisher fares best, playing Liz Lemon's idol, liberal feminist writer Rosemary Howard, in the episode "Rosemary's Baby." Lemon is so entranced by Howard's legend that she fails to see she's a certified twit. Watching Fisher lose her grip as she spouts controversial story ideas and then takes Liz to her nest in the ghetto is one of "30 Rock's" season highlights:
Liz Lemon: I grew up wanting to be you.
Rosemary Howard: I grew up wanting to be Samantha Stevens. The closest I got was being married to a gay guy for two years.
(For those of you who need an explanation, here it is: Samantha Stevens was the name of the witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery on the seminal 60s TV show "Bewitched." Dick Sergeant played Darrin her husband. He replaced Dick York, the original and far superior of the two Darrin's, who had to leave the show because of back problems. Many years after the show ended, Sergeant be-switched, admitting he was gay.)
Other familiar faces fare better in cameos. Southern political pundit James Carville drops in to give advice on love, feuds, and candy machines, solving the staff's problems "Cajun style." Brain Dennehy plays his crusty personality for laughs when he briefly appears as the union rep who annually donates sandwiches to the staff. Playing off his conservative appearance, Edward Hermann peers over the top of his glasses at Liz as the head of a condo review board. Dean Winters (Ryan O'Reily on "Oz") resurfaces as Liz's dim-bulb ex-boyfriend Dennis Duffy. Dennis has been dubbed a hero for rescuing a woman from an oncoming subway and tries to capitalize on his fifteen minutes of fame.
30 Rocks With Extras
Disc 2 contains a quarry full of rockin' extras, including deleted scenes, a table reading of "Cooter," the final episode, a behind-the-scenes look at Tina Fey preparing to host Saturday Night Live, a live performance of the episode "Secrets and Lies" done to benefit striking writers, and a cast interview at the Academy of Arts and Sciences moderated by Brian Williams.
Among the deleted scenes is a one-two punch line that would have helped elevate the forced humor of "SeinfeldVision." Feeling vulnerable about her personal life, Liz Lemon purchases a $4,000 wedding gown she has no practical use for. She leaves the bridal shop in an embarrassed rush, encountering an admiring passerby:
Woman: When's your special day?
Liz Lemon: Today. Every day's my special day, until I get mauled at the zoo.
The "Cooter" rehearsal is unlike other table reads I've seen (including "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). The audience can follow the script more easily because it's posted on the screen for us to follow. Nifty! You'll also find out what big-time English actress was originally cast to be the narrator for Tracy's video porn game.
Fey has made so many high-profile appearances as The Wicked Witch of the West it's easy to forget she's also a gifted writer and the crafty driving force behind "30 Rock." If you haven't already checked out Tina before she donned her librarian specs, sit down and carve out a few pieces of season two. It's amusing, and there are scenes that'll leave you rockin' with laughter. You betcha.