We’re Back: 30 Rock

Ben Vernel will be taking a look at a few of the programs that have returned from the holiday hiatus – today, Tina Fey’s madcap look behind the curtain of weekly sketch comedy, 30 Rock.

30 Rock has fallen. It’s true. I’m as sorry as you are, guy sitting next to me on the bus as I type this. What’s that? You were apologizing for stealing my wallet? Oh. Fair enough, just a misunderstanding. Joke’s on you guy, because my wallet is empty! As I was saying, 30 Rock – once a favourite of mine – has dropped in quality. Not to a level of unwatchability, but pretty low nonetheless. So why is it, exactly? Liz is still Liz, although jokes about her quirks are rapidly becoming repetitive and unimaginative retreads. Jack is still Jack; underhanded, ruthless, witty and slick. Tracey is as oblivious as ever. I see a pattern emerging; the characters haven’t changed. This is not a new concept in television, especially in the realm of comedy – The Simpsons have only aged one or two years over the span of 20+ seasons and the Seinfeld gang purposefully never learned anything – but 30 Rock is a single-camera comedy with a realistic setting and well-drawn characters. If you use character traits in order to generate jokes, those characters have to evolve if you want the jokes to stay fresh. The Simpsons uses everything to generate jokes, whereas Seinfeld used social conventions and norms. 30 Rock leans heavily on its characters, and as a result it’s foundering.

The overuse of celebrity guest stars is a blatant symptom of this; the first episode of the second half of the fourth season featured a limp and lackluster James Franco playing a bizarro version of himself (I’m assuming the real Franco doesn’t have a pillow fetish, of course). The problem isn’t that they got James Franco, it’s that he adds nothing. He doesn’t even do the job he was hired for – patching up the cracks in 30 Rock’s formula – and this is coming from a Franco-fan (mainly for Freaks & Geeks, admittedly). Look, 30 Rock is still worth watching. It’s occasionally funny and generally well-performed, and Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey are always great. But it’s no longer the best comedy on television. And I suppose, in the larger scheme of things, that’s not the worst criticism a program can receive.

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