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How to Fix an Aging '30' Rock? Add a New Female Lead

by Maureen Ryan, posted Mar 10th 2011 11:45AM
'30 Rock' has gone from a show that used to land on my annual Top 10 list to a program that isn't on my weekly must-see list. Don't get me wrong, I haven't given up on it. I watch it at least a half a dozen times each season and usually come away at least mildly entertained, but '30 Rock' is like that old college buddy you run into at a party. We used to have so much in common, but Liz Lemon and I have simply grown apart.

If '30 Rock' doesn't want to fade quietly into the twilight, I think the show needs to shake things up at this stage. Certainly it could stand some alterations in the cast department.

I'll get to who I think should go in a minute, but first, a few thoughts on why it's been easy to drift away from the comedy.

It's not a hard and fast rule, but I tend to fall harder for shows that give me someone to root for. We don't root for the characters on '30 Rock,' not really. We watch the writers put them through their paces, and sometimes those paces are very amusing. Still, and I truly do not mean this as a dis, the characters are essentially unchanging live-action cartoons. On 'Parks and Recreation' or 'How I Met Your Mother,' the characters' lives change over time, and it's easy to get invested in their potential fates.

On '30 Rock,' there's the appearance of change, but whether or not Jack Donaghy is married and whether or not Liz Lemon is in a relationship, these people essentially stay the same over time. These cartoon people can be incredibly funny (witness Jack's "I am a protein" speech from a few months back), but at this point, their parameters are well known, if not predictable. I can't say I'm drawn to the show for the characters themselves.

When the characters' lives and fates aren't the draw, the jokes become the main reason to tune in. As most critics have noted, '30 Rock' hit a rough patch in its fourth season when it came to the funniness of the show, but even before that, certain storylines started to feel repetitive, and the go-to paradigms of '30 Rock' became ever more obvious. Generally speaking, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) triumphs in some way, shape or form, over whatever challenges he encounters; if Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) triumphs in any way, those victories come about despite her self-defeating tendencies and low self-esteem.

Once you've seen those kinds of story a few dozen times, they become less amusing, though the show can still demonstrate cleverness on a structural level, as it did with a pleasing recent episode that paid homage to 'Murder on the Orient Express.'

My issues with '30 Rock,' such as they are, could be summed up as problems of scale. Perhaps it's a reflection of creator Tina Fey's long history at Chicago's Second City and on 'Saturday Night Live,' but the show really shines when it comes to wordplay, satire and goofy tableaux. There are certain phrases, scenes and set pieces that are subversively entertaining and surreally daffy, but these things are, by their very nature, small in scope.

'Parks and Recreation,' HIMYM and 'Cougar Town' are also silly and goofy at times, but they also explore compelling ideas about friendship and love. '30 Rock' just doesn't appear interested in those kinds of life issues, though the weirdly close relationship between Jack and Liz occasionally takes on hints of depth.

Still, when it comes to larger ideas or bigger concepts, the show often retreats or runs out of gas. Remember Liz's plan to adopt a baby? There was a throwaway line from Kenneth recently in which he noted that Liz's mailbox was stuffed with old adoption literature. But for the most part, the show flails when it comes to taking on anything larger than corporate stupidity or Tracy's latest meltdown.

Take 'TGS Hates Women,' the show's attempt to examine the problems faced by women in comedy and the lack of gender balance in comedy writing rooms. It's not that there weren't some sincere attempts to take on the subject, but they were all over the map and aspects of the story didn't even make logical sense. Would Liz really hire a woman she'd never met to write for 'TGS?' If that writer was wearing a disguise to throw her abusive ex off her trail, why did it have to consist of a miniskirt and pigtails? The storyline featuring Chloe Grace Moretz was decent (and I hope we see her character again), but that doesn't make up for the episode's other deficiencies.

It's not that I expected '30 Rock' to solve the problems of women in the comedy realm, but to have the episode end with the show more or less indicating the idea that the problem is unsolvable was weak and dispiriting. Ultimately, 'TGS Hates Women' was a disappointingly incoherent and timid look at an interesting topic. Given that Fey clearly knows so much about the subject (and has written compelling pieces about it for the New Yorker here and here), I expected much more, not just an ungainly one-and-done look comedy's female trouble.

If you want a strong, coherent point of view, '30 Rock's' gleeful trashing of NBC's Kabletown merger has been consistently hilarious. '30 Rock' generally excels when it bites the hand that feeds it, whether it's via Jack's weird management style or any number of swipes at NBC's programming (the 'Gals on the Town' sitcom parody from a while back was particularly inspired). When '30 Rock' takes aim at corporate suits and celebrity entitlement, it's at its most confident and savagely funny.

Having said that, there can be such a thing as too much celebrity entitlement (and no, I'm not talking about Charlie Sheen again). I've never had much time for Jenna, and at this point, I'm not sure '30 Rock' needs two self-absorbed thespians who are constantly acting out and making life hell for Liz. Tracy and Jenna's storylines often feel redundant and repetitive, but Tracy Morgan's deadpan line delivery and wackadoo sweetness are still pleasing five seasons in. Jenna's relentless idiocy and narcissism -- not so much.

This is an aging show that could use some fresh blood. Why not get rid of Jenna and bring in a new cast member for 'TGS'? Maybe 'TGS' could hire an actress (or writer) who is not an airhead -- or maybe she could be an airhead with good ideas. Or the character could simply be a clever and funny addition to 'TGS,' and could act as a sounding board for Liz (which appeared to be the idea behind the character way back in the day). The show certainly doesn't need another childish weirdo Liz has to control.

Truth be told, Liz is part of the reason '30 Rock' has been less than satisfying in recent seasons. It'd be a relief to have a female character on the show who could provide a counterpoint to '30 Rock's' constant need to point out that Liz is, in many arenas, a loser.

Bringing in a new female character might not solve the problems of women in comedy. But it might shake things up for one comedy in need of some new targets.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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May 02 2011 at 3:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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May 02 2011 at 3:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

DON'T get rid of Jenna...her saucy single-mindedness is always fun. Tracy Morgan, by contrast, is SO over-the-top it gets embarrassing.

March 15 2011 at 7:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Now that men is gone. Big Bang is # 1 show. 30 Rock is boring and Tracy Morgan is an idot.

March 14 2011 at 5:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

"Maybe 'TGS' could hire an actress (or writer) who is not an airhead -- or maybe she could be an airhead with good ideas. Or the character could simply be a clever and funny addition to 'TGS,' and could act as a sounding board for Liz (which appeared to be the idea behind the character way back in the day). The show certainly doesn't need another childish weirdo Liz has to control."

HMMMMM.....like, WHO, exactly? Could you be talking about.......... YOOOUU?? Are you lobbying for YOURSELF to get that job? Do you hope the fine producers of "30 Rock" will be contacting YOU, o highly exalted critic?

(Zing! That was a good one! Well, back to my job at the post office!)

March 14 2011 at 5:01 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

And, one more thing:

Jenna should grow up. If Morgan Guillermo Grimes -- this era's Gilligan, to Chuck's Skipper -- can get a grip and get his own place, then Jenna should become the producer she has the natural talent for. Let that broad loose on one of Kabletown's tacky cable nets (like Comcast's E! or Style or G4), and let her put out the nutsiest gossip/fashion show evah. Give her ex an anchor job in drag, and let her parallel Liz's learning curve as a producer -- let them be equals for once, instead of nutbar star vs. drabbier friend. She doesn't have to move out, just up -- and 30 ROCK's already laid the ground for that. That way they can have rolling bimbo guest stars until they get a good fit, and they still have Jenna for B- and C-stories.

March 14 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So I watched "TGS Hates Women", and I'm fairly certain that if TGS doesn't hate 'em, 30 ROCK sure does.

Let's put aside for the moment that Lorne Michaels has the rep of being a tin-plated, swaggering dictator with delusions of godhood, whose attempts to launch any other show than SNL has tanked, and that 30 ROCK can only be seen as the equivalent of a 'sustained' show back in the old time radio era -- a show where the house ads for upcoming NBC (and, still, GE) product outweighs ads that pay full-freight. Fine. And, we know Ms. Fey as the face of 30 ROCK, but really, is she the showrunner? Among all those producers and executive producers, who makes the decisions?

If she is the showrunner, did she really notice the optics of having a male-dominated staff, and a credited male writer for that script? That she showed more wit for their earlier "TGS loathes negroes" arc, with Queen Latifah as a mob-friendly, cadence-stereotyped congresswoman? That she's had, hell, four-plus seasons to deal with this issue, and *now*, when Ms. Fey's looking to her industrial legacy, this comes up? It's not a coincidence that she's writing 'hey, I *am* a feminist' articles just when this episode pops -- 'cause after watching it, she really, really does have to tell us that. But isn't showing better than telling?

Why must 30 ROCK worry it's pretty, silly little head about such things? It's really not built to handle comedy that verges on the cringing -- viz. Hornberger's marital rape jokes of last season, or the wakky spousal stalking arc that supposedly was the reason why a smart comedienne became a pederast-magnet kinderwhore. 30 ROCK is like Liz: It wants to be socially-conscious because it's fashionable, but it deals to the lowest-common denominator, because it's desperate. Not a good combination, or a working formula for integrity.

It is a shonda that ARCHER's built to be a more feminist-supportive show than 30 ROCK, simply because *every single character* is built to be a joke-spewing monster. No one is exempt from scorn and shoddy behavior, yet the writers (rarely credited, most likely all-male) honor their women by making them *distinctively* icky -- Pam's sexual and digestive systems, Cheryl's auto-erotic death wish, Lana's wretched intelligence about her weakness for Archer, and Malory's bad parenting. Can 30 ROCK ever equal Archer's discovery of what was in Malory's desk safe? Do we care about 30 ROCK's characters to empathize with such a deep cringe, yet laugh so hard it's hard to breathe?

Each ARCHER character has traits that define them, as well as make them disgustingly funny, something that 30 ROCK can't really be bothered to do, considering how large its cast is and how often it discards character fidelity for laffs. Twofer's gay, isn't he, and he becomes a bad boy to impress Abby? The woman writer has no character, so she becomes a butch letch? I know that any time I tune into ARCHER, the characters won't be deep, but they will be funny.

March 14 2011 at 1:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just because you are a jaded & bored tv critic that needs to fill up a column doesn't mean you need to try to ruin one of the best shows on tv. Leave it alone, you silly little twit. 30 Rock is fine. In fact, NBC's thursday night comedy block is the best night on tv. (with the exception of Outsourced, of course)

March 14 2011 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


March 14 2011 at 11:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Mo, if I'm not mistaken the imbalance between crazy, childish actor characters started when Fey replaced Rachel Dratch with Jane Krakowski. They went for the pretty, instead of having two talented, unplain-but-not-gorgeous women with regular plotlines.

Paradoxically, since Krakowski's so talented and gorgeous, they had to make her character more whacko and dislikeable than Tracy Jordan, which is hard, since they (and Morgan) use our culture's residual minstrel tendencies to let Jordan get away with murder. (He must have killed someone by now....) So now, Fey's stuck -- creating a complex and funny and sane female character would necessarily be someone better than Liz Logan, and who wants to be upstaged?

They lost their chance with their main token female writer -- I swear that woman mimes more than says anything, when they could have made a Rhoda for Liz's Mary. (See? There's precedent for you....)

I wonder what we'll see in the following weeks, due to Morgan's medical leave? That's the time they could have taken to explore things, but they'll just snap back to Liz Needs A Man/Child/Life but Fails Miserably, while Jack Gets Richer.

March 11 2011 at 8:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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