Saturday, April 12, 2008

Friends from a Distance

The conventional wisdom for TV shows -- particularly sitcoms -- is that the characters should be user-friendly. Oh, they can have quirks and eccentricities in ways that are lovable and non-threatening, but ultimately they should conform to Hollywood's deluded notions of friendship: that the people you work with are the same as those you'd have over for dinner.

Liz Lemon, our ostensible hero on 30 Rock, isn't the boss from hell exactly. She's more like Satan's middle-management, with neither her conscience nor her baser instincts strong enough to climb the ladder of success or resist its siren's call. Many of the best episodes of 30 Rock have focused on how this inner limbo spills over into Liz's life, and "MILF Island" (this week's first post-strike episode), which featured Liz desperately attempting to cover her tracks regarding some negative comments inadvertently leaked to the media about her boss, NBC-exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), was another fine showcase for the neurotic exuberance of Tina Fey. As an actor and a writer, Fey is generous and fearless, as equally willing to embarrass herself as she is to distribute the gags among her crack comic ensemble. Fey's "Cathy" comic-strip gag was the episode's high point, with enjoyable moments coming from reliable supporting players Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer. I'm still not sure if the best lines go to Baldwin or if he makes them funnier by virtue of his impeccable timing (expressing admiration for the compelling backstory of one of "MILF Island"'s key participants, Jack says, "She's a struggling actress living in Los Angeles"), but his Jack Donaghy remains an indispensable foil for Fey, winding her up and watching her bounce off the walls.

You wouldn't want to work for Liz, much less be a friend, in her most lunatic moments; yet she's a paragon of virtue compared to the incomparable Michael Scott on The Office, (also marking its return this week). Needy and childlike, Michael's principal ambition as the manager of paper company Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton branch is to be loved, his naked desperation the very thing that repels subordinates like Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) from giving him what he craves. A running gag this season involving Michael's frustrated efforts to hang out socially with the aforementioned couple (they always have other plans) was the crux of "Dinner Party," which featured Michael going to ingenious lengths to rope them into coming over to his condo for an after-work suare.

Typically The Office doesn't stray from its documentary depiction of the Scranton branch, leaving its characters' private lives to either rationed bits of information or to our imagination. "Dinner Party," though, was the most revealing sight yet of Michael Scott's home life. The tacky tidbits (scented candles, chairs shaped like hands) were gradually distributed throughout the episode, with Michael's tension-packed relationship with Jan (Melora Hardin), living under the same roof, reached a crescendo of caustic "babes" and barbs. I squirmed during the entire running time of "Dinner Party," but in retrospect, freed from its clutches, I think it was a tour-de-force of discomfort. Like Tina Fey, Steve Carell excels at the kind of ego-free acting it takes to play a character with an uninhibited id. Michael is an overbearing boss and a suffocating would-be friend; but it's hard to not like a man who (we are told), excited by the sound of an ice-cream truck, runs full-barrel into a sliding plate-glass door.

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