The fantastically funny 30 Rock hit its stride in its second season on NBC, just in time for the Writer's Strike to trip its power walk (the shortened season clocks in at fifteen episodes). Despite the stress of the strike, creator/head writer/star Tina Fey and her sterling team of writers and actors crafted new highs for the series, particularly the one-two punch of "Rosemary's Baby" (Carrie Fisher's Emmy-nominated guest turn; Alec Baldwin's tour-de-force performance in a therapy session) and the political satire of season finale "Cooter" (with guest star Matthew Broderick as one of the lowest men on the Bush Administration totem pole).
Fey plays Liz Lemon, head writer for sketch show "TGS with Tracy Jordan," shot at New York's fabled 30 Rockefeller Center. Liz's corporate master is Jack Donaghy (Baldwin), NBC's Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming. Liz plays a funhouse mirror Mary Richards to Baldwin's Republicanized Lou Grant: though the show ultimately is about Liz's quest to "have it all" (career, personal life, and Mexican cheese curls), the show has shown nearly equal interest in Jack's burning ambition to supplant retirement-age CEO Don Geiss (Rip Torn of The Larry Sanders Show). When 30 Rock won the 2008 Emmy for Best Comedy Series, Fey deservedly picked up additional Emmys for writing and Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, while Baldwin rightly scored as Best Actor in a Comedy Series.
No sitcom would be complete without a wacky cast of supporting players. Tracy Morgan (an old SNL pal of Fey's) rules the roost as Tracy Jordan, the deliriously out-of-it diva of "TGS." Tracy poses a constant threat to co-diva Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski, all but reprising her role from Ally McBeal), the show's singing, dancing triple threat. Jack McBrayer (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays Kenneth, the NBC page whose naive Midwestern values provide a broad contrast to the urban backbiting all around him. Then there are the staffers of "TGS": Jack's lovingly obsequious personal assistant Jonathan (Maulik Pancholy); producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit); the writers, led by bickering Frank (Judah Friedlander) and Toofer (Kaith Powell); and Tracy's surprisingly wise entourage, Dot Com (Kevin Brown) and Grizz (Grizz Chapman).
Partly in its quest for ratings commensurate with its quality, 30 Rock has rolled out a massive number of guest stars, but Fey and her team have used them so well that the series has effectively avoided the criticisms Will and Grace often fended off for "stunt casting." Beyond Fisher and Broderick, Season Two includes brilliant guest turns by Tim Conway (another 2008 Emmy winner), Jerry Seinfeld (in season opener "Seinfeldvision"), Will Arnett (as Jack's desperately closeted rival), David Schwimmer, Al Gore, Edie Falco (as Jack's inconveniently Democratic love interest), Elaine Stritch, Buck Henry, Andy Richter, Dean Winters (returning as Liz's boorish ex Dennis), Brian Dennehy, Steve Buscemi, and SNL vets Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis.
In tone, 30 Rock most closely resembles sentiment-allergic Seinfeld, played at the pace and high-fantasy quotient of Scrubs. The show's second season has many comic highlights, but nothing beats the scene in "Rosemary's Baby" that won Baldwin his Emmy. With Tracy running amok, Jack sits in on a therapy session, and agrees to participate in a role-play of Tracy's family. The session quickly gets out of control, with Donaghy playing Tracy (as J.J. Walker), his dad (as Fred Sanford), his mom, his stepfather, and his Hispanic neighbor. The racial insensitivity is played effectively for big laughs. How insensitive? Let's just say Donaghy climatically pulls from his bag of stereotypes the phrase "bust up your chiffarobe." Genius.
30 Rock returns to NBC's Thursday night lineup on October 30, 2008. Along with its usual lead-in The Office, 30 Rock is half of the funniest hour of comedy anywhere on TV right now. On the strength of its second consecutive Emmy win for Best Comedy and Fey's increased prominence as SNL's Sarah Palin, perhaps more viewers will discover 30 Rock's madcap mayhem.
The trend in DVD is toward slimmer packaging, so Universal's decision to bundle 30 Rock: Season 2's two discs in an extra fat package stinks of sticker markup. Still, if this is what it takes to make the ratings-deprived series financially viable, I'm all for it. Disc one packs in ten episodes and disc two the other five, along with a strong selection of extras. The series gets a solid anamorphic widescreen transfer that suffers a bit from compression, and a more-than-ample Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.
A number of enlightening and entertaining commentaries are included: Will Arnett ("Jack Gets in the Game," Jane Krakowski & Jack McBrayer ("The Collection"), Fred Armisen ("Somebody to Love"), Judah Friedlander ("Cougars"), Tina Fey & producer/husband Jeff Richmond ("Episode 210"), Scott Adsit ("MILF Island"), Tim Conway & Jack McBrayer ("Subway Hero"), co-executive producers Robert Carlock & John Riggi ("Succession"), Fey again on "Sandwich Day," and Krakowski & McBrayer again on "Cooter."
Disc two includes five deleted scenes (4:01). Another very cool inclusion is the "'Cooter' Table Read" (31:30). Presented in two windows, one showing the actors and one showing the scrolling script, the half-hour includes some bits that never made it to air, including a potential cameo by Helen Mirren (Broderick isn't present for the table read, so his part is read in).
The coolest extra by far is "30 Rock Live at the UCB Theatre" (46:48), a heavily publicized charity event that took place during the writer's strike, to raise money for the show's out-of-work PAs. The cast (minus guest star Edie Falco) does an uproarious staged reading of "Secrets and Lies," with McBrayer and John Lutz performing improvised commercials. "Tina Hosts SNL" (8:06) is a glorified promo for SNL, with some behind-the-scenes glimpses of Fey's 2007 hosting gig.
Lastly, there's "The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Presents: An Evening with 30 Rock" (23:10), moderated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams (where's a TV critic when you need one?). Q&As by the TV Academy and the Museum of Radio & Television are always welcome extras, capturing whole casts interviewed for posterity during a show's run (notable exception: an absent, reportedly under-the-weather Tracy Morgan).
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