Friday, June 03, 2011

Shut It Down

Please cancel 30 Rock. It's not going to happen, but I'll say it anyhow: shut it down.

Alec Baldwin, who has made it clear that the coming season is his last, announced in April that 2012 was also "the last year of the show," period, but then quickly took it back: "I want to take the opportunity to state that although my days on network TV may be numbered, I hope 30 Rock goes on forever. Or at least as long as everyone involved desires."

Ungh, I don't. I wonder if Baldwin really does either--it sounds like somebody nudged him.

I am a huge 30 Rock fan. I started watching the show sometime around late 2008 (thank you Netflix Streaming, for letting me swan dive into season one all at once), and since then I've seen every episode many times, revisited whole seasons repeatedly, clutched it tight like a favorite stuffed animal. I haven't quite pawed over every favorite bit of writing (Pizzarina Sbarro!), but I've absorbed it completely happily as it came at me.

But in the last few years the show has been showing its age and I've increasingly wished that it would end. It's become thin. From a literal, joke-counting POV, it might be funnier--a constant barrage of wordy humor--but it's not as good. This show that was always great at being about a group of people--because it was about a group of people--has more or less become centered around a core of two, who do most of the work with long speeches. Baldwin's acting abilities are up for it (although it's not as fun); Tina Fey's aren't. I think she's extremely neato, but she wasn't meant to do that much heavy lifting.

At its best, 30 Rock is propulsive, constantly surprising, opening our understanding of characters with each little interaction in a constellation of ways, but the show has started to pat premises and characterizations harder into place with each joke (let Lutz break out a little, eh?). And the show has ended up in some tired sitcom places (classic stuff like will TGS be canceled?).

The show's not bad--it's not bad! (Although the bag-in-the-tree/smooth-move-Ferguson episode sure flirted with it). Just not so great, for a show that used to to be much better than it had to be. The 100th episode, which in the context of the first couple seasons would have seemed formulaic and a little sentimental, actually seemed pretty good to me, which says something.

I don't know why I assumed 30 Rock could avoid the trap of the TV show that Will Not Die, especially as it hung on long enough to get sucked into the gravitational pull of the 100-episode syndication landmark. That pull is so strong that it seems to dominate the lifespan of any show that hints at going into a fourth season--pulling it past a fifth, into a sixth to validate the decision, or further.

It's especially painful when good TV shows go out this way (or don't go out, being the point). Why do we want TV shows to last forever, when it's a problematic idea for even arguably more worthy constructions, such as actual human beings, to do so? We do, though--we want TV shows to have eternal life. The BBC ran two spectacular, zippy seasons of The Office, with one satisfying Christmas episode wrap-up, but NBC cranked out seven seasons of the US version and when the premise was bled dry and natural plot developments explored and everyone spawned and partnered and the lead actor finally had to leave, they transplanted another lead to keep the body alive. We do this all the time to keep these carcasses going: push in the Ted McGinleys and the Replacement Blondes, Kids, and Love Interests. Two and a Half Men just drafted Ashton Kutcher to wear the wacky brother jersey for one more season, even though it's a reasonable guess nobody thinks it's going to last much longer. There are no DNR orders for TV shows--we try heroic shit until there's just no point. (And these days we reboot it ten years later, anyhow.)

I remember a friend turning to me after a Simpsons episode one Sunday night in the early 1990s, probably sometime in the middle of the third season when things started to get really good, and saying with a kind of worried happiness, "Are these always going to be so good?" The shows were so great, so funny, it was hard to imagine them being anything but--but. We knew it couldn't last forever.

It would not have occurred to us to imagine that the show would be on the air twenty-two years later (like imagining our parents at age 190), kept going with good writers--but for what real reason other than money? Surely one of the benefits with creative creations is to shape them as best we can? Not letting them linger?

I know I'm priggish and idealistic. This whole topic is a terrible hobbyhorse of mine, because it bums me to see a show that has always gone its own way grind down to mediocrity or unavoidable TV cliches to keep itself on the air, not to mention sitcoms can go to some bad places past five or six seasons (look at Roseanne). 30 Rock is starting to look a little like late-seasons Simpsons: funny from the outside-in, with less emotional core.

I found 30 Rock at a rough time in my life, and if I were inclined to write "Dear Tina Fey" letters I might tell her that the show was smart, engaging solace, right when I needed it, every time. There was something sort of magical about how good it was, how fun and smart and solid. The show is still way too smart not to know what's happening to it (the writers even play with it sometimes)--but I wish somebody would just pull the plug.


Carol Hiller said...

You know, I think you're right. Shoot. But yeah, nobody has Baldwin's mad skilz, and gone-him means gone-show. And it was Tina Fey who was supposed to be the lead. Awkward.

Anonymous said...

I hope they have Tina Fey on water skis jumping a shark in a leather jacket next season. Or maybe the whole thing will just turn out to be one of Tracy's dreams.

Don't you think certain shows go though stages of maturity: when they're young, they're still trying to figure out the right mix, so things are a little whacky, but there's so much energy and unexpectedness you keep watching. When they reach maturity, the depth of the characters makes up for the lack of novelty. I trust, as Jack did, that Liz will know when to pull the plug.

Elizabeth M. Tamny said...

I disagree. She doesn't know when to pull the plug, because if she did, she would have already.

I also think the show hit that great depth of character spot already...more like 3rd season. Now it's just retreading.

Anonymous said...

I'm still amused, although I agree that the plastic bag in a tree episode was a bit lame.

While I'm here, could I borrow a cup of sugar? I'm trying to get a hummingbird to drink out of my penis.

--your favorite gender dysmorphic bigenitalian pan-sexualle.

Elizabeth M. Tamny said...

Nice to meet you, FGDBP-S! :)