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11 October 2007

Against the odds, it rocks

Yet another show going behind the scenes in TV - but this has potential 30 Rock

By Rachel Cooke

Comedy shows that go behind the scenes at fictional TV programmes: when they’re good (The Larry Sanders Show), they are very good, and when they’re bad (The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, which I reviewed here last week), they are awful. Is there a middle ground? Not often. Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive – a send-up of a Have I Got News For You-style quiz (BBC3) – was, I suppose, fairly middling. Brydon himself, when he was backstage and slagging off his guests, was occasionally hilarious, but once he was hosting the quiz, it all got very tedious. The truth is that this kind of unpicking of TV culture is all too familiar. Now that I really think about it, Larry Sanders is the only example of the genre that truly worked, which is why, ever since it ended in 1998, younger comedians have longed to step into his hapless, neurotic shoes. This is dumb. Guys! Garry (Shandling, its creator) got there first. Descending on his territory at this point is like proudly serving last night’s half-eaten roast chicken at a wedding buffet.

Channel 5’s latest American acquisition, 30 Rock (Thursdays, after 10.30pm), is also haunted by the egomaniacal ghost of Garry but, oddly, I have high hopes for it all the same. There is one reason for this and one reason alone, and her name is Tina Fey. I love Tina Fey; I have a borderline crush on her (it’s her brain that I like, though I must admit that she is also very, er, pretty, especially when she’s in her spectacles). Fey used to be a performer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and was its first female lead writer. She also wrote and co-starred in the film Mean Girls. 30 Rock is inspired by her experiences at Saturday Night Live, and it also goes out on NBC in the US (its title is the nickname of NBC’s New York HQ, housed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza). As well as writing it, she plays Liz Lemon, the control-freak head writer of a live sketch comedy called The Girlie Show who must keep her head – and her ratings – while all around her everyone else is losing theirs.

There are lots of reasons why I like 30 Rock. For one thing, it’s a plucky outsider of a show. In its first season, its ratings were dire, yet it went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series (in her speech, Fey thanked “our dozens and dozens of viewers”). For another, it has more or less seen off Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s series on a similar theme, which is pleasing, given how many men still go on about how women aren’t funny. But I like it most of all because it’s good. It’s not hilarious yet, but it will warm up in the coming weeks.

It deals with the long shadow of Larry by employing a nervous energy – an anarchy, in fact – all its own. While it bullishly satirises the networks’ lunatic obsession with ratings, there’s something equally crazy about Liz herself. Faced with a new boss (Jack Donaghy, previously the brains behind a new kind of oven, and played with unctuous genius by Alec Baldwin), she appears deeply sane; but as soon as she steps out of his office, her sanity falls away like a cloak and something wilder appears.

I think you can tell that 30 Rock is written by a woman. Its jokes are acute, but never smug. Fey is great at the laddish slapstick that goes on in the writers’ room, and she knows which buttons to press so far as corporate cowardice goes. But she isn’t content only to send up television itself. Her script has plenty of gags about what it is to be a working woman, and they are not always comfortable. In the first show, Jack met Liz for the first time and duly announced: “I gotcha. New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it; overscheduled and undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover . . .” Liz’s expression tightened: “What? You gonna guess my weight now?” Fey hasn’t brought a new dish to the table, but as homage goes, this is probably as good as it gets. Against all the odds, 30 Rock rocks.

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