❉ Multi award winning US comedy makes its Blu-Ray debut, but is it worth a double dip?
“30 Rock went on to garner many, awards during its seven years and belongs to the canon of great US sitcoms of the past twenty years. For viewers in the UK, however, it was hard to find and has taken on cult status and found an audience much later through DVD releases…”
30 Rock was Tina Fey’s first major comedy vehicle following her run as head-writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. Presiding over a time of seeming rebirth for the long-running topical variety show, having become not only the first female head-writer as well as introducing Amy Poehler as her co-anchor in the popular Weekend Update segment, Fey left to develop her own show based in no small part on her experience in working in live comedy television for NBC. I say ‘in part’ – 30 Rock is a show about working in live comedy television for NBC.
The show, its name stemming from the nickname of the building on New York’s Rockefeller Plaza where the NBC studios, went on to garner many, many awards (Emmys, Directors Guild, Golden Globes, Screen Actors…) during its seven year run and is generally considered to be one of the greatest comedies to come out of the US in the 21st Century. For viewers in the UK, however, it was hard to find – slipping deeper and deeper into Channel 5’s schedule before being dropped after the second season. Like Arrested Development, which ended up plugging gaps in BBC 2’s late night schedule, 30 Rock found it hard to get an audience in the UK (despite being picked up by Comedy Central) and has, as with many other shows, taken on cult status and found an audience much later through DVD releases.
30 Rock centres on the life of Liz Lemon (Fey), head writer for the The Girlie Show, an SNL-like sketch and variety vehicle for her friend and former Improv-partner, Jenna Maroney. The show-within-the-show, helmed by Lemon and produced the family-frazzled Pete Hornberger, is thrown into turmoil by the arrival into NBC of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), an executive who has been promoted to the television department following his success in the Microwave Oven division. Donaghy forces Lemon to adopt the unpredictable movie-star Tracy Jordan into the cast, changing the name to “TGS with Tracy Jordan”.
The ensemble is rounded out with a selection of characters from the writers room, including the slogan-wearing sleaze-ball Frank Rossitano and “Toofer” – so named because “with him you get a two-for-one – he’s a black guy and a Harvard Guy”. Inscrutable NBC page, Kenneth Parcell, is the breakout character of the first season, transforming from handy-plot-gopher into fully fledged weirdo within a few episodes.
Conversely the character of Josh Girard who, prior to Tracy Jordan’s arrival, is the main male cast member of TGS is the weakest in the ensemble and his departure in Season 4 is welcome. The series focus, although mainly shot on three sets (the TGS sound stage, Jack’s office and the Writer’s Room), isn’t limited to the stresses of putting on a TV show and takes in corporate power structures, relationships, the left vs the right, friendship and feminism and is peppered with, as the series progresses, increasingly surreal jokes and character details.
In fact much of the joy of the show is seeing how the world outside of the studio impinges on the characters, such as when Jack Donaghy’s not-quite-ex-wife appears (in the form of the “surprisingly age appropriate” Isabella Rossellini) or we’re introduced to the show’s own peddler of panaceas Dr Leo Spaceman (pronounced Spa-Chem-an). The guest cast is almost universally excellent, appearing either as themselves – a device that the setting permits more freely than in many sitcoms – or as recurring characters. Later series see excellent turns from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Will Arnett and Sherri Shepherd, who is a delight in the role of Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie.
Series one, like many US comedies, does show the classic signs of finding its feet, particularly in the first few episodes. This is perhaps a hang-up from the earlier version of the show – an unbroadcast pilot had SNL’s Rachel Dratch in the role of Jenna, as the role required more of the sketch-style acting for which she was best known. A rewrite led to the casting of Jane Krakowski who is sadly underused in the first few episodes and season one in general, but soon comes to fruition as one of television’s greatest ever Divas: Jenna Maroney, star of the near unpronounceable movie The Rural Juror. Dratch pops up in several episodes in a variety of ‘grotesque’ bit-parts.
Perhaps the first four episodes are a bit shaky, as the show doesn’t necessarily make it clear what the intended format is – is it a relationship story centred around Liz Lemon, a behind-the-scenes story of a TV show, or a surreal comedy where illicit drugs make little blue men appear in the corner of your eye? It turns out it’s all of these things, but it takes a little while to settle down into a comfortable balance which is achieved in part by having a good rotating cast of writers and directors, particularly Beth McCarthy-Miller who has proven her mettle on shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, Parks and Recreation and Tina Fey’s Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
It’s worth noting that on the pre-release Blu-ray I reviewed the sound and image is punchier than the DVD edition although for a sitcom, despite the great jazzy music score and background studio-tannoy jokes, the 5.1 mix doesn’t really seem necessary. Consider also that there was an excellent ‘Complete’ DVD set released in 2016, with 5.1 mixes and loads of bonus material, which is still available for considerably less than you’ll spend to complete a collection on Blu-Ray. There’s certainly a big price differential between DVD and Blu-Ray editions, particularly when buying single seasons. Despite my love of a good HD image, I’m not entirely sure that the Blu-Ray release is totally essential at this price difference. By the way, there’s a great gag in 30 Rock about High-Definition cameras, but you’ll have to wait until the fourth season to see that. (or watch it here)
30 Rock certainly belongs to the canon of great US sitcoms of the past twenty years and perhaps even well beyond that. Like Parks and Recreation, it rewards viewer commitment to the story even if, as with Parks & Rec, the first few episodes seem a little clunky, the characterisation a little unclear – as if the material it’s made from hasn’t quite cooled down and set yet. Stick with it. It’s densely packed with gags, features a range of outstanding performers and at about twenty-two minutes per episode is great to binge watch for laughs.
❉ ’30 Rock’ Season 1 was released 9 April 2019 on Blu-ray by Fabulous Films. Certificate: 12. Running Time: 465 mins. Price: £29.99.
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.