In its sixth season, 30 Rock did not seek to break the mold--indeed, it was a season marked less by innovation than returns to previous innovations. Two of the fifth-season highlights were the show's live episode and its reality TV send-up Queen of Jordan; the sixth season gives us, um, another live episode and another episode of Queen of Jordan. It would be easy to make the argument, and many have, that Tina Fey's absurdist sitcom was running on creative fumes in year six, coasting on its established characters and audience goodwill. To which I respond, "Yes. And?"
There are worse things in this world than creating a comic universe, filling it with distinctive characters, and letting them go through their paces. A show like Friends may have, as Chuck Klosterman wrote, "completely transgressed into a vehicle for the on-screen personalities of its six stars," in which "none of the characters on Friends seemed even semi-real and all the dialogue sounded like skit comedy," but by that point in its progression/transgression/evolution, that's what we were tuning in for. It was television comfort food, a pure and clear sitcom, i.e., a "situation comedy," as in, "won't it be funny when we put these characters into these situations."
30 Rock is not Friends, which is neither a dig nor value judgment on either program. It is not a conventional sitcom, in that it is shot on film with a single camera and eschews (excepting those live episodes) a laugh track; it became part of an entire block of NBC comedies in that style, programs which, for the most part, bewitched critics and alienated audiences who preferred the easy familiarity of turgid swill like Two and a Half Men. (If that jab seems contradictory to the previous paragraph, it's only worth noting that there is a difference between comfort food and hospital food.) In its early seasons (reviews here), tradition seemed the furthest thing from its mind; creator/star Tina Fey based the show on her experiences as head writer for Saturday Night Live (SNL creator Lorne Michaels is the show's executive producer), but it wasn't some kind of inside-baseball showbiz satire. The show's genius lay in its multi-tiered approach to comedy: it did smart, it did broad, it did weird, it did parody, it did politics, it did it all.
From the beginning, it was a program with echoes of earlier, iconic television classics. The oft-strained mentor/protégé relationship between Fey's frazzled Liz Lemon and NBC/GE exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) had the DNA of Lou Grant and Mary Richards in it; the behind-the-scenes-of-television-comedy material mimics, in style and humor, much of The Larry Sanders Show; Liz's single gal in the city storylines, with Fey playing a character loosely based on herself and surrounded by a rogue's gallery of relatable weirdos, owes more than a little to Seinfeld. What makes 30 Rock unique and interesting is the degree to which those various ingredients, and countless others, are tossed together into a kind of anything-goes comedy stew, a rapid-fire joke machine rife with pop-culture references, goofy callbacks, sketch comedy schtick, and utter strangeness. Only classic Simpsons (and, at its best, 30 Rock's Thursday night companion Community) can rival not only the show's joke-per-minute rate, but the percentage of those gags that land.
That percentage varies from person to person, of course; this viewer has often wondered how some of the particularly specific New York gags (subway and street vendor bits abound) go over outside Gotham, and there are probably smarter ways to appeal to Middle America than to base an entire episode on the relationship-testing experience of going to IKEA "as a couple." (It's spot-on, though.) And the degree to which the show mirrors NBC's purchase by Comcast (here dubbed "Kabletown") seems aimed squarely at TV-business nerds, who may not be the largest percentage of the viewing audience.
But honestly, that's what's so refreshing about the sixth season of 30 Rock. It is a show that's always survived on critical kudos and Emmys, and has never had a large, crossover audience; it's a show that comedy geeks, inside-showbiz types, and New Yorkers lionize, and most others marginalize. NBC never quite figured out how to sell it (and missed some opportunities to do so); they seem to have finally shrugged it off as a prestige series around the time that Fey and her staff realized they were bound to remain an acquired taste--and decided they'd just make a show to amuse themselves and that smallish audience. Mission accomplished. In its sixth year, 30 Rock is as funny as ever.
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image nicely captures the show's rich, peppy look, with bright color saturation and full black levels. Skin tones are natural and details are sharp; it's a very good-looking disc. The audio presentation is good as well; the 5.1 Dolby Digital option nicely mixes a crisp dialogue track with a well-modulated music score.
An English 2.0 track is also included, as well as English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The discs come with four Audio Commentaries: the season premiere, "Dance Like Nobody's Watching," by writer Tracey Wigfield and writer/producer Tom Ceraulo; "Alexis Goodlooking and the case of the Missing Whisky" by Judah Friedlander; "Standards and Practices" by Jack McBrayer and his nephew; and "Live from Studio 6H" with Jane Krakowski and composer/producer (and Fey's husband) Jeff Richmond. The first and last are the best, providing some chuckles and interesting info; Friedlander goes for just jokes, but the track is only intermittently funny, and the gimmick of McBrayer and his nephew is cute but wears out its welcome quickly.
The twenty Deleted Scenes are frequently amusing--the trouble is, most are under a minute long, and since there's no "play all" option, the process of working your way through them gets old fast. But there's fun to be had in comparing the "Live from Studio 6H" episode to the West Coast Version (23:23)--losing one of the two Jon Hamm appearances in one thing, but if the east coast gets Paul McCartney and the west coast gets Kim Kardashian, then the west coast got hosed. (Watch the end to see how ill-equipped she is for the simple act of delivering a punchline.) "Behind the Scenes of 'Live from Studio 6H'" (7:24) offers a fun peek at the making of that live show, and the set also includes the rousing Warm-Up (8:42) for that show, emceed by Fred Armisen and featuring music performances by Cheyenne Jackson and Jane Krakowski.
Though 30 Rock's sixth season spins its wheels a bit, they do take on some compelling new themes: at long last, a healthy relationship for Liz (her boyfriend is played by the admirably game James Marsden), a bit of humility for Jack, and some funny career challenges for Kenneth. But it's mostly a show content to keep doing what it does well, and--for this fan, at least--that's quite good enough.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.