Chief Justice Michael Stailey once had a career in television comedy, but no longer goes by the name he used during his writing days on The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.
Our reviews of 30 Rock: Season Two (published October 8th, 2008), 30 Rock: Season Three (published September 22nd, 2009), 30 Rock: Season Four (published September 21st, 2010), 30 Rock: Season Five (published November 29th, 2011), and 30 Rock: Season Six (published September 2nd, 2012) are also available.
"By the Hammer of Thor!"
The rumors of the sitcom's death have been greatly exaggerated. If you don't believe it, you haven't been watching NBC. Between The Office, My Name is Earl, and 30 Rock, The Peacock is single-handedly keeping the format alive. All three shows have thrown out the decades-old rulebook, approaching their respective comedies in unique, single camera, feature film style. The funny thing is, these creative showrunners aren't new kids on the block, and two of them come from the writers' room at Saturday Night Live—Greg Daniels has reinvented the uncomfortable inter-office brilliance of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for American audiences, and Tina Fey has spun a sharp observational wit and 15 years of experience in the worlds of Second City and SNL into prime-time gold.
Facts of the Case
NBC has been nursing along Liz Lemon's (Tina Fey) quaint Friday night sketch comedy series, "The Girlie Show," but when a power shift takes place upstairs, life is about to get…interesting…for everyone. Jack Donaghy (Alex Baldwin), has just been promoted to the head of Network and Microwave Programming for parent company General Electric, which makes him Liz's new boss…and the bane of her existence. The show, now dubbed "TGS," gets a makeover courtesy of new featured player Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the mentally ill, multi-million dollar movie star. Jack is looking for ratings from the most valuable demographics; Tracy is looking to get his career back on track after a nervous breakdown; and Liz is looking to maintain her sanity. It's a threesome made in comedy hell. As Jack says, "This television stuff is just one unpredictable ass ache." Blurg!
• "The Aftermath"
• "Blind Date"
• "Jack the Writer"
• "Jack Meets Dennis"
• "Tracy Does Conan"
• "The Break-Up"
• "The Rural Juror"
• "The Head and The Hair"
• "Black Tie"
• "Up All Night"
• "The C Word"
• "Hard Ball"
• "The Source Awards"
• "Corporate Crush"
You know how we all have people in our lives who continue to tell us that the payoff for all our hard work is just around the corner? Well, Tina Fey and her team just rounded that turn. 30 Rock is the next big thing you aren't watching. It's honest, sharp, irreverently funny, and everything SNL hoped it could be rolled into one cohesive universe. These folks are having a blast and it shows in every single frame.
30 Rock is one of those rare shows that is layered with so much detail you will continue to discover new things to laugh at even after the second or third viewing. Mixing quick sight gags and verbal exchanges with multiple storylines that often intersect, Fey and fellow writers Robert Carlock and Jack Burditt are masterful at planting seeds of comedy that payoff well down the road. If a sitcom can be serialized without alienating viewers who don't tune in each week, this is it.
The series has not been without its controversy though. The original pilot had to be retooled, when the network wanted Jane Krakowski as the female star of "The Girlie Show" instead of Fey's close friend and collaborator Rachel Dratch. Bad feelings aside, the move paid off in a big way. Jane is the perfect blonde foil to Fey's too smart for her own good Brunette. And Rachel still gets to do what she does best, creating memorable off-the-wall characters—Cat wrangler, Sensitivity trainer, Eastern European prostitute, Political protestor, Barbara Walters with speech impediment, a rage-induced Elizabeth Taylor.
The other dark note came late into the season, when in the midst of much personal turmoil, Alec Baldwin fired his management team and announced he would retire from acting. Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed and Alec has returned for Season Two. The show wouldn't be the same without him. Alec is the heir to the throne of William Shatner's on-screen charisma, with ten times the acting chops.
The rest of the cast are no slouches either.
Scott Adsit, a fellow Second City alum, is rock solid as Pete, Liz's right hand. His dead pan delivery and reaction shots are priceless. With any luck, we'll see much more of Pete and his family in seasons to come.
Jack McBrayer is frighteningly effective as Kenneth, the sweet, dumb, moral compass of the series. His passion for television and belief in the inherent goodness of everyone around him keeps this troupe from straying too far from the straight and narrow.
Judah Friedlander is the personification of Tina's inner nerd, as one of the show's main writers. We can only hope we'll get to explore more of Frank's unusual world in Season Two. And if Judah is the nerd, Keith Powell as Toofer is Tina's anal retentive, overly evolved intelligence. His need to constantly remind people he graduated from Harvard while commenting on the juvenile nature of his peers make him 30 Rock's Sam Eagle.
Rounding out the cast…Katrina Bowden (Cerie) is the show's adorable eye candy and a constant reminder of just how old the rest of the staff really is. Grizz Chapman (Grizz) and Kevin Brown (DotCom) balance out Tracy's mania as his bodyguards and rented conscience. The only person that hasn't really gelled with the team is Lonny Ross as Josh Girard, the only other TGS featured ensemble member. His impersonations are weak and value to the storylines may be best served by a stronger actor. Either that or the writers just haven't figure out how best to use his skills.
When not loading their scripts with a metric ton of political and pop culture references, the 30 Rock team is out pounding on doors and calling in favors for inspired casting choices.
Exceptional recurring characters…Isabella Rosellini as Jack's Arbys loving, not-quite ex-wife Bianca. Chris Parnell (SNL) as Dr. Leo Spaceman (Spa-Che-Men), the live action equivalent of The Simpsons Dr. Nick. Maulik Pancholy (Weeds) as Jack's face-saving, personal assistant, Jonathan. Jason Sudeikis (SNL) as Liz's boyfriend Floyd. Emily Mortimer (Match Point) as Jack's gold-digging, hollow bone syndrome suffering fiancée Phoebe. Rip Torn (Men in Black) as GE Chairman Don Geiss.
Exquisite guest star casting…Paul Reubens (Big Top Pee-Wee) as the malformed Austrian prince Gerhard Hapsburg. Will Arnett (Arrested Development) as conniving NBC executive Devon Banks. The legendary Elaine Stritch (Monster-In-Law) as Jack's mom Colleen. Nathan Lane (The Producers), and SNL alums Molly Shannon and Siobhan Fallon as Jack's feuding alcoholic, Irish Catholic siblings. Wayne Brady (Whose Line is it Anyway?) as Tracy's business manager. LL Cool J as rap gangsta Ridikulos. Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) as Kenneth's inbred, mouth-breathing Appalachian cousin. And Anna Chlumsky (My Girl) as "the other Liz."
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image quality is top notch. The colors pop, especially during TGS show nights when the costuming team gets to strut their stuff, and to the casual observer there's no hint of digital distortion. However, in Tina's commentary track, she mentions that the image looks stretched, making them look taller and skinnier than they do in real life. This could indicate a problem with the anamorphic transfer.
Speaking of problems, the audio surprisingly lacks consistency. The first few episodes are fine, but the deeper you go into the series, the more the volume levels change. Not so much within the episodes themselves, but from episode to episode you will find yourself having to adjust your TV or stereo receiver. And the bonus materials are all over the place with volume levels, so keep those remotes handy. Two English language tracks are provided—5.1 Surround and a 2.0 Stereo mix, but you won't find a whole lot to differentiate them. There are very few instances where directional effects can be heard, although Jeff Richardson highly effective underscore (this guy could be the next Alf Clausen) sounds more robust on the 5.1 mix. I know he shares a bed with the series creator, but the boy has talent. The music on the show is a character unto itself.
Now, for a highly anticipated first season release, there appears to be a fair amount of bonus material. Ah, but looks can be deceiving.
Five audio commentaries lay the foundation, but weirdness does ensue. Instead of layering the commentaries on top of the episodes themselves, all five audio extras are housed within replicated episodes on Disc Three. Don't use the "Play All" option, as the commentary track does not always kick in. For me, it worked fine for the first three episodes, but not the final two. I had to go back to the Bonus Menu and select them individually for the audio to work properly.
In terms of content, Tina's commentary on "Black Tie" is the most engaging and informative of the bunch. I only wish she did them all. Why? Well, Jack McBrayer's commentary for "Fireworks" gets off on the wrong foot, when he refers to Alec Baldwin as "Billy Baldwin" (later he calls me Daniel, Tom, and Elizabeth) and it's all downhill from there. Ever see a standup comedian bomb in the most embarrassing way? This will top the worst you've endured. It's not even funny—it's just plain weird. For as effective as he is on the show, Jack's tongue-in-cheek insights are not worth wasting 26 min of your life on. Speaking of a waste of time, Tracy's commentary ("Tracy Does Conan") is little more than remedial television criticism. You won't get much out of it. The same holds for Lorne and Henry Michaels turn on "Hard Ball." Someone needs to tell Loren that you have to actually comment on something for it to work. Alec tries his best, explaining how difficult it is to do commentary for a fast-paced comedy and deciding to just talk over the episode ("Hiatus")…unfortunately, he forgets to do that and we wind up watching the episode with him. When he does remember to share something, other than laughing, it's worth hearing.
Next up are 11 minutes worth of deleted scenes from nine of the season's 21 episodes. It's Tracy being odd, Liz and Gretchen's time together, Pete prepping Tracy for Conan, more "Designing Women" references, Kenneth sharing his feelings for Grace, Tracy's morning-after in Connecticut, staff excuses for leaving work early, Dennis moving out, garbage vs. recycling, Liz on the phone with her parents, Frank's encounter with Jenna's cleavage, Jack's advice to the youth of America, and Frank's pre-show warm-up. Some of it is interesting, but nothing here would've enhanced these episodes in any way.
An Evening with Kenneth is 10 minutes of Jack McBrayer's character hosting his own backstage talk show, interviewing various TGS cast members—Jenna displaying her sexy vocal skills, Frank describing a day in the life of a TV writer and initiating a hand fart concert, and Tracy gets bumped.
Behind the Scenes is Judah Friedlander's 5-minute kamikaze backstage tour, and Jack McBrayer and Lonny Ross' 11-minute guided tour of Silvercup Studios which houses the sets for the show. The practicals are shot at 30 Rockerfeller Plaza and throughout the greater New York area.
Makin' It Happen is Devon Bank's (Will Arnett's character) complete interweb series—all three 10-second episodes in their entirety.
Finally, the most valuable piece of bonus material is a 13-min blooper-laden mockumentary called The Wrap Party from FHS (Fake Hollywood Story) that showcases some exceptionally funny outtakes.
All in all, not a stellar outing for the DVD production team. You can often find more entertaining bonus material on the 30 Rock official site. Head over and watch "Ask Tina" or play "Marry, Boff, Kill" for a while and you'll see what I mean.
When you have the right mix of inventive and passionate people involved in a project, the end result appears effortless. It opens an audience's mind to new experiences and, on rare occasions, may define the new standard for the next wave of creative idea swiping. 30 Rock benefits from that rare collective of talent and execution. If the sitcom is to survive, producers best look to this team for inspiration. And for those of you who have not followed the series, buy 30 Rock: Season 1 and get caught up before the series becomes the "It" show everyone's talking about.
Snag those Emmys! You've earned them.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentaries from Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, and Lorne and Henry Michaels
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