Revisiting the Merits of ’30 Rock’ (and ‘Studio 60’), 100 Episodes (and One Quick Cancellation) Later

Variety commemorates the 100th episode of “30 Rock” in today’s edition, and somebody was kind enough to point out that I originally didn’t give the series much of a chance.

What I didn’t foresee and which certainly colored my opinion — was that the other latenight show-within-a-show program NBC launched that fall, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” was going to be as unwieldy as it was after the promising pilot and fall on its face. Or as I wrote in October 2006:

NBC’s decision to launch both this show and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” so close together still feels misguided, and few comparisons — except perhaps Alec Baldwin’s sinister network suit — reflect favorably upon this half-hour version. Baldwin and co-star Tracy Morgan do yield a chuckle or two, but a “Saturday Night Live” pedigree won’t be enough to anchor this “Rock” unless it gets consistently funnier, and fast.

For the most part, I still agree with every word of that appraisal. But what actually comes closer to crystalizing my thoughts about “30 Rock” is my review from the second-season premiere in October 2007.

To me, here’s the key passage, as true of the Emmy-wnning but ratings-challenged show now as it was then:

The symbolism of Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance on “30 Rock’s” season premiere isn’t hard to grasp – attempting to link the sophomore sitcom to NBC’s comedic heyday, as opposed to its perceived status as the next “Arrested Development,” a critical darling whose Emmy win won’t keep the dogs at bay forever. This week’s debut, however, neatly highlights this series’ strengths and weaknesses, elevated by moments of inspiration and Alec Baldwin’s brilliance and leavened by considerably-less-flattering silliness. Situated against formidable Thursday-night competition, fans should savor a piece of this “Rock” while they can. …

“Rock” simply isn’t the great show that NBC’s comedic standard-bearer “The Office” has become, only truly approaching greatness when Baldwin’s onscreen — the very model of a modern network weasel, deadpanning his way through a character that could easily be a complete cliche, yet one the actor manages to make endlessly amusing and occasionally even improbably endearing.

For me, at least, that’s still the case: “Rock” is generally terrific when the focus is on Baldwin, and entertaining when Tina Fey takes center stage. But the rest of it is merely silly, especially Morgan and Jane Krakowski as the self-absorbed stars.

By the way, as much as I liked “Studio 60’s” pilot, the show didn’t consistently measure up. But I still think the admiration — and reservations — expressed in the opening of that review were valid:

Despite conventional wisdom that augurs against the success of a TV show about TV, it’s hard not to root for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a series that weds Aaron Sorkin’s crackling dialogue and willingness to tackle big ideas with a beyond-stellar cast. Sorkin’s ear for the media’s rules and excesses was a staple of both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and his exploration of an aging latenight franchise is so bracingly smart it’s sure to hook discriminating viewers. That said, NBC had better hope the big-name actors entice some less-discriminating viewers, too.

Offered as further proof that when it comes to such matters, critics (including this one) don’t always get it right, but that William Goldman did: Nobody really knows anything.

Happy 100th.


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