In 10 Words or Less
Tina Fey leads one of the funniest sitcoms ever
Loves: Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"
Likes: Tracy Morgan, "SNL," Jane Krakowski, Tina Fey
Hates: Judah Friedlander's look
The Story So Far...
One of two "SNL"-inspired shows created for NBC in 2006, "30 Rock" was Tina Fey's baby, an oddball comedy about Liz Lemon (Fey) and the sketch comedy show she runs, as well as its unusual cast and crew, including somewhat-mental star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), and egomaniacal company CEO Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). The first season was released on DVD in October of 2007. DVDTalk has a review of that set.
Forgive this thought: can you imagine what it would be like if your image, what you look like, was co-opted by one of the biggest idiots in the history of national politics, after building a career based on your wit? It must be infuriating.
In its first season, "30 Rock" started out a bit slow, but once it found its voice, as a comedy show unrestrained by reality, it became one of the best shows on TV. The challenge in returning for a second season would be in maintaining that sense of "anything goes" while keeping things fresh and actually telling a story. Fortunately, that wasn't a problem, as there's plenty to enjoy in season two, and it all starts with Liz Lemon.
Tina Fey gets a good deal of respect for being the first female head writer of "SNL" and she brought that skill to "30 Rock," but the thing she really deserves accolades for is her acting. Watching her as she tries to hold it together in the face of mutinous crew members, insane stars, manipulative executives and bad boyfriends, she displays incredible comic timing and delivery, making her feel very real and yet incredibly silly. With every exclamation of "blergh" or flashback to her nerdy past, she becoming increasingly endearing and funny, and helps set the tone for the series.
There's honestly no real change to the cast in this go-around, as Tracy remains loveably manic, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is as self-absorbed as ever, and Kenneth (Jack McBreyer) is still the naïve country bumpkin. But would you really want them to change? Has Homer Simpson ever really changed? Did Sam Malone ever really change? Iconic sitcom characters are who they are, and that's why we love them. It's when they change that they jump the shark. So even when Jenna bulked up at the start of the season (in a great subplot) she was still the fame-hungry, self-obsessed actress, and Jack is the same business-minded semi-neurotic exec whether he's working for GE or Homeland Security (again, part of a great subplot.)
So with the characters firmly established and the rules of the game in place (as in, there are no rules) it's all about the stories and jokes, which are frequently genius. When you consider there are stories about Jerry Seinfeld being digitally edited into every NBC show, environmental superheroes, and Jack falling in love with a Democrat going after GE's parent company (played by Edie Falco), the show is capable of making just about anything it tries funny. It could be a split-screen phone conversation involving an imitation of Re-Run from "What's Happening?," a team of little leaguers re-enacting the take-down of Saddam Hussein or Tracy and company performing "Midnight Train to Georgia," but it's all hysterical.
No matter how good they are though, nothing could be as good overall as "Rosemary's Baby," though, which is fantastic top to bottom, with three equally-strong storylines (though "Ludachristmas" is close, thanks to the presence of Buck Henry as Liz' dad and Elaine Stritch as Jack's mom, while "Cooter" is an excellent parody of Bush administration incompetence, led by a terrifically desperate Matthew Broderick.) The main story, about Liz meeting her hero, the first female writer on "Laugh-In" (Carrie Fisher), lets her face her potential future as a drunken anti-establishment rebel, while Jack is dealing with Tracy's bad behavior, which has manifested itself by him starting a dogfighting scheme.
Jack's efforts to rein in Tracy led to one of the most memorable moments in comedy history, as, during a therapy session to get to the root of his problems, Baldwin plays not only Tracy's father, but his mother, and Tracy himself, displaying his fantastic ability to mimic the main cast of "Good Times." If you can watch this madness and not laugh, you may in fact be dead. Add in another subplot about Kenneth's battle with head page Donny Lawson ("Human Giant"'s Paul Scheer), culminating in a "Page-Off" and the episode achieves legendary status.
So I'm sitting here holding this holofoil-covered set, and it feels rather light, so I wonder if maybe it's a mis-pack and there's discs missing. Opening it up actually was a surprise, because there were only two discs...in packaging big enough to hold about six. It's a throwback to the days of the big brick two-disc sets like A Bug's Life, just in a two-giant-tray, slipcased digipack style. It's really rather obscene, considering how you can fit three times as many discs in half the packaging. On the discs themselves, which are split 10 episodes to five, you have nice anamorphic widescreen menus (with scene transitions) offering options to play all episodes, select shows and check out the special features. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, while subtitles available in English SDH and Spanish, though there's no closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfers on this set look much better than last time. All the issues that were troublesome before, like the softness of the image and the level of fine detail, have been improved upon, and the things the first season got right, including the quality of the color and the lack of any dirt, damage or digital artifacts. It's about as good as network TV will look on standard DVD.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are what you would expect from a network comedy, coming off clean and free of distortion, presenting the dialogue cleanly. There's some occasional music fed to the side and rear speakers pumping things up, but there's nothing dynamic about the mix.
Unlike many other series from last year, a smaller number of episodes has not resulted in a decrease in bonus content, as the set has jumped from last year's five commentaries to 10 this time. Fortunately, the participants who didn't work last time (Morgan, Baldwin and Lorne Michaels) didn't return, allowing a new group to attempt and fail at commentary. The combo of McBrayer and Krakowski makes for a pair of solid tracks, and even putting McBrayer in the booth with guest Tim Conway (who does very well as a guest on the show) works, as he's good at making the chats flow naturally. On the other hand, Will Arnett leaves too many gaps and Fred Armisen tries too hard to create an ironic track. I now know that ironic commentaries are passe.
Here's the lineup:
- "Jack Gets in the Game": Will Arnett
- "The Collection": Jane Krakowski & Jack McBrayer
- "Somebody to Love": Fred Armisen
- "Cougars": Judah Friedlander
- "Episode 210": Tina Fey & composer/producer Jeff Richmond
- "MILF Island": Scott Adsit
- "Subway Hero": Tim Conway & McBrayer
- "Succession": Executive Producer/Writer Robert Carlock & Co-Executive Producer John Riggi
- "Sandwich Day": Fey
- "Cooter": Krakowski & McBrayer
There are less deleted scenes this time, just six in all, but some of them are so funny they should have been included in the show no matter what problems they had with time, like Frank's bathroom discovery or Jack's job interview. One, on the other hand, is just disgusting.
There are two script reads included, but they are very different. The first, "Cooter," is a 31-minute table read with the cast in a window at the top of the screen, and the script at the bottom. The camera is mostly stationary on Morgan, Fey and Baldwin (who is in a suit and tie (to get into character?)), which some glimpses of the others, which makes for a somewhat boring presentation (since there are times when no one on screen is speaking.) It's weird to hear people laugh at what they are doing as much as this group does, but it's interesting to watch anyway, with the differences from what aired and especially to see Morgan stumble his way through the act of reading.
The second reading is the 47-minute live version of "Episode 210" which was presented at the New York UCB Theater during the writers' strike, as a benefit performance for the show's out-of-work production assistants. Following an audio intro from Fey, the show is presented on the UCB's tiny, tiny stage by the regular cast, with commercial breaks filled by improv by McBrayer and John Lutz and raffles. Seriously...raffles. It's simply adorable. Unfortunately, it's not the highest quality footage, and the audio isn't too great, but it's still fun.
Also of the home-video style is the 8-minute "Backstage with Tina Fey Hosting 'SNL'," though the quality is a tad better. The featurette follows Fey through the week she knew well as head writer on the show, as she writes, rehearses and preps for her night as host. The idea's been done before, obviously, but to see someone so intricately involved previously get to do it makes it a bit fresher.
Things wrap up with the 23-minute "The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Presents: An Evening with '30 Rock'", hosted by newsman Brian Williams. The participants include Fey, Carlock, Michaels, Baldwin, Krakowski and McBrayer, who discuss the experiences of the actors and the stories and characters on the show, along with Michaels' thoughts as producer and inspiration, and even touches on the parallel production with "Studio 60." The piece is obviously edited from the original presentation (as several cast members on stage (including Adsit and Lonny Ross) never get to speak, which is a bit disappointing, as is the quality, as it feels almost like a bootleg, with an off angle and bad, muffled audio (sometimes worse than the live read.)
The Bottom Line
An excellent blend of concept, cast and writing, 30 Rock somehow got even better in its second season, perfecting its brand of surreal comedy to the point of being a true TV classic. Though this set is a bit light in terms of actual episodes, they look and sound great, it adds a great deal of extras to the mix, and good ones at that. If you haven't been watching, you really should check this show out now, and fans have no reason to miss out on the bonuses included.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.