'30 Rock,' 'Men in Trees' show staying power
Sometimes, it’s worth getting a second opinion. Even if it’s your own.
Viewers, of course, have the option of permanently turning off a new series after one episode, if not one scene. But critics — at least the good ones — often circle back and revisit a show four or five episodes into the run to see how it’s shaping up creatively, to see if there’s any improvement.
Several shows that debuted last fall to warm but certainly not overwhelming critical praise, such as “30 Rock,” “Men in Trees” and “Brothers & Sisters,” seem to fit that mold, each gaining critical steam as the season went along.
“30 Rock” probably exemplifies the scenario best of all. At the beginning, some critics wrote that the show had a hard time balancing the zaniness of Tracy Morgan’s character with the nuanced comedy of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, who was just coming off “Saturday Night Live.”
And it probably didn’t help that the show-within-a-show concept also was being done elsewhere on the Peacock. Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was grabbing a lot of headlines — and probably more fans than “30 Rock” — based on the pilot.
“When you watch a pilot, you have to ask, ‘Does it show potential?’ ” says Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan. ” ’30 Rock’ is a great example. I thought it took a few episodes to find its voice and then came on strong very quickly. In two months, it was a must-see comedy.”
“We knew enough about Tina Fey to know it would be good,” adds Rick Kushman of the Sacramento Bee. “With shows like that, you have to stay on top of it.”
“Men in Trees” showrunner Jenny Bicks was generally pleased with the show’s early reviews, which ranged from terrific (“The writing is so good, so clean and understated that it’s a pleasure to behold,” wrote Linda Stasi in the New York Post) to terrible (John Leonard, New York magazine: “Although not quite ‘Northern Exposure’ for morons, ‘Men in Trees’ makes you want to climb one, just to get out of the way of the smirks.”)
But as the season went along, the show found a hardcore group of fans, and critics who were dismissive of it early on began hearing from those passionate viewers — mostly online by way of the journos’ blogs — and gave the show another look. They liked what they saw.
“Critics are, I think it’s fair to say, more rewarded for finding a problem with a show than being the initial supporter,” says Bicks, who was a writer and exec producer on “Sex and the City.” “We’re not a glib show, nor ironic nor sarcastic. We’re a show that you have to understand, that has a quirky warmth. … There were critics that I really respect who became ardent fans.”
Conversely, many critics were fawning over “Studio 60” early on, including both Ryan and Kushman. But then the tide turned, and initial huzzahs quickly went against Sorkin and Co.
“I admit it. I drank the Kool-Aid,” Ryan says of her fondness for the “Studio 60” pilot.
“I got a lot of mail about it,” Kushman recalls. “Sorkin tried something that was really brave. He took on culture debates, and that’s a complicated show to do, and it came off as preachy.
“The thing that people didn’t like about it was, as much as people want to know about Hollywood, they don’t really care about the stakes. They like doctor and cop shows because the stakes are so high. These people were agonizing over a script (in a variety show), and people didn’t really care.”