It may not have the violent fireworks or throw-down poetry of a colossal rap feud, but it’s tempting to look at the battle between Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock — two new series about the inner workings of a Saturday Night Live–ish sketch series — as a new West Coast–East Coast TV war. In one corner is the Aaron Sorkin–created, L.A.-set Studio 60, hyped as the heavyweight hour to beat this fall in terms of intellectual luster and Emmy potential; its challenger is the laugh-track-less, single-camera Tina Fey sitcom 30 Rock, a New York show with “contender” written all over it, if only because half-hour comedies are hardly sure things anymore. They’re both on NBC, so they don’t actually have to compete with each other in a head-to-head ratings way, but when it comes down to it, if you’re watching both shows, you’ve been comparison-shopping subconsciously. So let’s get it over with.
Overall, 30 Rock has a simpler mission and stronger weapons to get the job done: namely, be funny, and hire people like Alec Baldwin — a screwball-era throwback who can find the crooked zing in any line — as a network suit, and Tracy Morgan — whose crazy vibe is almost Zen-like — as the mentally unbalanced movie star expected to revive the fortunes of something called “The Girlie Show.” On that level, it absolutely succeeds, and often in ways you wouldn’t expect (like verisimilitude).
Studio 60, on the other hand, aims to be an incisive, fierce, collegial, romantic, brainy, dark yet hopeful look at the battle of art and commerce in modern television. And occasionally it does feel like the only show in the universe with certain things on its mind, usually thanks to Matthew Perry’s believably cranky, tortured writer character. But really, I just wish it were funny. Not walking-banter funny, or look-what-I-know funny, but funny funny. Even a little bit. Because when Amanda Peet’s network president unleashes a minilecture to Bradley Whitford on advertising rates and the demographic profile of Vanity Fair readers in order to persuade him to cooperate with a writer doing a cover story, my mind starts to wander — and I question whether (a) Vanity Fair would put a late-night comedy show on its cover and (b) whether a network head honcho would really bring a magazine reporter to the office of the ex-junkie executive producer of her hit late-night series without warning him way in advance. It’s almost as if I enter a viewer-retaliation head space when Sorkin gets all Sorkin-y: If he wants to bombard us with details to impress, then it’s hard not to overscrutinize every last detail of his fictional universe.
Idealistic, wonky, impassioned exchanges between people who have nothing left to learn are one thing when your characters work for the president of the United States — The West Wing was always better at stirring speeches than human drama — but c’mon, we’re talking about late-night TV. Comedians and kooks and hams and geeks. On the other hand, 30 Rock doesn’t have to try hard to feel real, because even though it’s got that circus mentality, there’s a wicked sense that Fey is unloading every bizarre thing she’s ever seen or heard in her nearly 10 years at SNL. In last week’s episode, Fey’s head-writer character manages to get in trouble on two different occasions with her self-obsessed, newly thrown-together co-leads (Morgan and Jane Krakowski) over accidentally overheard comments via microphone and closed-circuit camera. The setup is expedient farce, patently outlandish, but the show-biz humor of placating one star’s ego by trash-talking others is a crafty, well-played truism, and Fey gets rich comedy out of it.
How each series deals with the quality level of its show-within-the-show is also telling. Studio 60 is set up as the rebirth of a glorious lampooning institution after years of fallow, numbing doltishness, exemplified by a disdained sketch called “Peripheral Vision Man.” The in-house creative villains are a couple of entrenched head writers considered beneath contempt by our whip-smart heroes — prodigal former employees Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Whitford), coerced to come back and revive the show. What does the populace want? A forced Gilbert & Sullivan parody, apparently, a lame quiz-show bit about the war against science, and somebody imitating Juliette Lewis as the host of Meet the Press. But has a skit’s subject matter or a 19th-century cultural reference ever been the reason an SNL skit worked? Much is made of a controversial sketch called “Crazy Christians”: how its antireligion edge worries the parent company, how it created a crisis of artistic duty in a Jesus-loving cast member (Sarah Paulson, unfortunately saddled with a construct instead of a character), and how it ultimately tickled the funny bones of millions of viewers when it finally aired. Well, why haven’t we seen it yet? Because Sorkin obviously isn’t a sketch writer — as evidenced by the snippets Studio 60 does show us — and seems to think a battle for the satiric purity of a sketch is more interesting than entertaining an audience. And in any case, he’s probably built up the fictional show too much to actually risk our view of his superior-seeming characters by giving it life. It’s as if the members of Monty Python kept telling us how transgressive and awesome the dead-parrot routine was — without ever actually performing it.
Clearly Sorkin thinks (hopes?) the public is just biding its time until someone finally puts Strindberg or the ancient Greeks in prime time, whereas Tina Fey’s 30 Rock would prefer to make jokes about the reality of what does galvanize viewers, as when Krakowski’s live mishap with a scratching cat becomes a funny YouTube phenomenon the next day. But if the cyclical popularity of the real Saturday Night Live’s quality roller coaster is any indication — currently suffering with only the happily loony Amy Poehler as a consistent treasure — the craving isn’t for self-consciously smart, it’s for another Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers or Will Ferrell. Guys who had killer Zeitgeisty shtick, not pretensions toward importance. (That comes when they leave to make movies.)
Fey gets this. “The Girlie Show” on 30 Rock is obviously no good: A sketch we hear about called “The Overly Confident Morbidly Obese Woman” is merely a gag line, not indicative of the end of civilization. But the idea isn’t to lament bad TV, just to spotlight the ridiculous struggle that goes into getting mediocrity on the air, which for now makes 30 Rock a weirdly appropriate and hilarious symbol of our times rather than Sorkin’s strange world of comedy righteousness, refinement-hungry viewers and intonings on the “importance of pop culture” — as somebody actually said on Studio 60 last week (groan).
In the pilot of 30 Rock, when Alec Baldwin’s poised appliance executive explains with deadpan authority to a bewildered, interference-averse Fey that the reason he’s been transferred to oversee television is because he helped develop a revolutionary oven that uses three kinds of heat to “cook a turkey in 22 minutes,” it’s probably not a coincidence that that’s how long your average network half-hour runs without commercials. Now that’s a joke, clever in its knowingness about corporate synergy, yet utterly silly under Baldwin’s gonzo-confident delivery. Plus, it made me laugh out loud.
30 ROCK | NBC | ?Wednesdays, 8 p.m.
STUDIO 60 | NBC | Mondays, 10 p.m.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes