30 Rock's Smug Premiere
There's nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want!
Jack Donaghy, GE's vice president of East Coast television and microwave oven programming, framed last night's very fine, very class-concerned season premiere of 30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET) by breaking the fourth wall. At the top, he stared into the camera almost warmly: "Hello, everyone, I'm so happy to see all of you and to welcome you to Season Four," the camera pulling back to reveal that Season Four was a schmancy Manhattan restaurant where Donaghy was treating his subordinates not to Asian fusion but to the vulgar foodstuffs that common folks stuff themselves with. The show-within-the-show had lost touch with "the real America," he said, commanding the cast and crew of TGS to start pandering thereto.
For instance, Jack charged Jenna Maroney with developing a "new Southern-rock theme for NBC Sports." His fictional NBC is, impossibly, worse off than the real NBC. In our world, the network at least owns the right to Sunday-night football programming—the only stuff on its schedule that cracks Nielsen's prime-time top 20. In Donaghy's, its last remaining sports programming is off-season tennis, and Jenna developed a twanging number to pitch Tennis Night in America in a down-home fashion. It played during the closing credits: "Got my lawn chair in my truck/ Not an ocean in sight,/ So kiss my ass, New York,/ 'cause it's Tennis Night!" Dancers with tennis rackets and cowboy hats and white booty shorts shook their tails behind her. Cutaways featured hay bales and exploding 18-wheelers.
Turned out that Donaghy and Liz Lemon were watching this in his office. "I hate that I kind of like that," she said. He encouraged her to step into the light: "There's nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want." He looked into our living rooms again, more than a touch of cool superiority in his stare: "Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno." Oh, snap!
From the studio of his new 10 p.m. show—a program representing the irreversible diminishment of NBC—poor Jay feigned cool, grasped at dignity, and responded: "Thanks, guys! Time to give America what they want." Another half-dozen women in skimpy tennis-white cowgirl outfits shook it on his stage. Sadly, they had no rackets. No irony, either. In a time span shorter than a T.G.I. Friday's commercial, we saw a pungent contrast between two sets of cultural values.
This was all very funny and more than a bit embarrassing. When 30 Rock mocked the crassness of its medium two seasons ago by imagining a reality competition titled MILF Island, that was mere ridicule. It was motivated by something like lighthearted contempt. This joke dripped with open scorn. It was rescued from distasteful smugness—maybe—partly because the episode also teased elitism and partly because of the political content of Jenna's segment. In a jab at the marketing purposes to which mindless jingoism is put, the number featured an excess of American flags; in a chortle at redneck-ism, flashes of undershirt revealed the Confederate battle flag.
The joke was not rescued from smugness entirely because it is unfair to implicate Leno, however obliquely, of playing to base instincts. His only crime is total blandness. Then there is the fact that 30 Rock was only able to make it to a fourth season because of the preponderance of blue-state affluents in its relatively small audience. In mocking popular (populist?) taste, Tina Fey and friends bit a hand that isn't even feeding them. What a racket.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey in30 Rock