Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sinking Like a Stone

It's official: Alan Sepinwall and I are matter and dark-matter. While it's unnecessary to agree with every opinion of my favorite TV critic, I've never found our responses so antithetical as with the recent string of episodes on 30 Rock A few weeks ago, Alan hated "Generalissimo," the sublimely silly episode featuring Alec Baldwin delightfully playing both his regular role of NBC exec Jack Donaghy and a gay Latino actor portraying the titular villain on a Spanish soap opera. Yet he's loved practically all of the lamer efforts from this season, including this week's climax (one hopes) of Jack's prince-and-the-pauperess romance with a Puerto Rican home health-care provider, a showcase for Baldwin and Salma Hayek's potent non-chemistry.

Hayek is only the latest casualty on a season dominated by guest stars: ostensibly funnier performers like Steve Martin and Jennifer Aniston also fell on their faces. This has been, of course, NBC's attempt to raise the show's initially floundering ratings. It seems to be working, though I can't imagine new viewers are enjoying -- much less comprehending -- the ostensible premise: a farcical behind-the-scenes peek at a late-night sketch show. The show within the show is now virtually nonexistent, as is the gallery of supporting characters who rarely appear at the same time anymore, and often not at all. At present, a typical half-hour of 30 Rock features Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, and a Special Guest Star of choice. Imagine every week of The Office with only Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson and without its marvelous ensemble and it becomes understandable why many fans have complained.

Less discussed but an equally prevalent case of network tampering has been the show's absence of political satire -- even this week's spotlight on a stock market crash was almost incidental and toothless. Last season's highlights included Matthew Broderick's hilariously beleaguered Head of Homeland Security, a ghastly-funny 9/11 visual gag, a gay bomb, and trenchant one-liners that had you laughing harder for days afterward. (One choice scene featured Jack mentioning attending a Republican fundraiser hosted by John McCain and 24's Jack Bauer, then Liz observing, "He's not real," and Jack replying with a condescending chuckle, "I assure you, John McCain is very real.") Occasionally a well-aimed jab slips through, but for the most part Fey's bite has been muzzled.

The irony is that possibly no television series' performers since the late-70s heydey of Saturday Night Live have ever been such a part of the political Zeitgeist: first with Sarah Palin; now, following Bobby Jindal's sing-song rebuttal to the President's address of Congress, comes collective mention of the Governor's unlikely yet uncanny resemblance to McBrayer's folksy Kenneth the page. With antics more amusing offscreen than on, it's possible that Fey may see this as her Faustian bargain to ensure her show's survival. Talented as she is, I hope Fey turns her rise in ratings into creative collateral, transforms these flaws into a fertile storyline, and comes to realize she has a cast with the comic chops to help her accomplish it.

I missed the first hour or so of last Sunday's 183rd annual Academy Awards, opting instead for what seemed like an intuitive bit of counterprogramming: Ben Stiller's Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder (which somehow seemed funnier the second time around). Yet eventually I gave in and caught the second half of the telecast. Every year I announce I won't watch the damn thing, and every year I end up staying up late in the evening doing just that. Although I missed what were reportedly high points (the Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway intro; the Tina Fey/Steve Martin pairing, which I have read was funnier than anything in their 30 Rock endeavor earlier this season) and caught instead the botched "In Memoriam" sequence and Kate Winslet's expected Gollum moment with her coveted precious, count me in with those who enjoyed the festivities more than usual. It wasn't anything that was added so much as what was missing -- a palpable lack of fear that allowed pompous blowhards like Sean Penn say whatever was on their minds without nervous producers cueing the orchestra and pulling the mike. A rare wry observation this year on 30 Rock was made by Jane Krakowski's bubblebrained pseudo-celebrity Jenna, a D-lister who noted, "We're actors! If we didn't exist, how would people know who to vote for?" For this, if nothing else, I'd like to thank the Academy....

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