30 Rock's dangerous decline and the shadow of Will & Grace

30 Rock's dangerous decline and the shadow of Will & Grace

30 Rock occupies an unusual place in the television landscape. It’s far from a hit—its ratings would have meant cancellation on just about any other network—but because of its leading lady, snarky sense of humor, and satirical digs at the network that airs both it and the show within its show, it’s become one of those things you Have To See if you’re at all interested in television or comedy. And back in 2007—roughly the show’s back half of its first season and first half of its second season—there was nothing quite like the sheer, go-for-broke craziness that the show put out. It was legitimately one of the best shows on television, and one of the funniest in the medium’s history.

But since the show returned from a hiatus imposed by the 2007-08 writers' strike, it’s lost some of that confident swagger, becoming more hit-and-miss, with its worst episodes a shell of the show that once was. The last few episodes of its second season and all of its third season had moments that were staggeringly uneven, veering from good joke to bad joke, sometimes within individual scenes. The ratio of jokes landing to jokes flailing was getting much worse, even as the show’s media profile and ratings were rising in the wake of star and creator Tina Fey’s increased cultural prominence. 30 Rock could crank out some of the funniest stuff on television—season three’s “Reunion,” “The Funcooker,” and “Apollo, Apollo” stand proudly with anything the show has done—but some of the episodes veered distressingly toward "average" or even "mediocre."

All comedies can experience slumps. The longer a comedy is on the air, the more used to its rhythms the audience becomes, which either results in episodes that are boring and predictable, or a creative staff that goes out of its way to keep from falling into a slump, only to succumb to other pitfalls. Recent examples would include how The Office went astray by making all its characters into big, goofy caricatures in the late episodes of its third season and early episodes of its fourth season, or how Curb Your Enthusiasm could never find solid footing in its often-muddled sixth season. But worse is when a promising or even terrific comedy chases itself into oblivion, like Entourage did after its second season, or Roseanne did in its last three years. The question, then, is whether 30 Rock is just in a slump, or whether it’s plunging off a cliff into oblivion. And while I remain hopeful it's just a slump, there are troubling signs that the cliff could be just ahead.

It’s worth noting that even at its worst, 30 Rock is still a very solid show. There’s a level of craftsmanship at the show’s base that makes it more appealing to watch than most other comedies on the air, just because the actors are all good, the writers are among the best joke-writers on television, and the staff’s directors keep things moving along at a snappy pace. At the same time, though, a bad episode of 30 Rock is much more painful than a bad episode of, say, The Office, in spite of that level of craft that keeps it mostly watchable. To understand why this is, exactly, we have to get down to what makes a TV comedy work or not work.

All comedies are based on three very simple things: the premise and the plots that stem from it, the characters, and the jokes. A show needn’t have all three of these things functioning at a high level to completely work, but a show with, say, a really solid premise and plots, but predictable joke-writing, will eventually stop seeming funny, no matter how well-crafted the plots are. The most important thing to a good comedy, though, is a set of good characters and good relationships between those characters. This is the ground floor for television sitcoms, the foundation that makes everything else work. All In The Family, for instance, had a pretty tired premise, but it had really solid joke-writing, and even better, great characters with complex dynamics that made for terrific humor opportunities.

Another example of this is the really very terrible Who’s The Boss, a show that actually managed to translate into a hugely popular critical success in other countries, where word-for-word translations of the American scripts were shot with local casts, not weighed down by Tony Danza. Because the central dynamics of the show were fairly well thought-out, with a different cast, the show had a chance to work. I have a hard time seeing Who’s The Boss as an overlooked classic, but when compared to a lot of other terrible shows of the time, its character dynamics are much sharper than on, say, the utterly generic Growing Pains, something that probably translated well overseas.

But if you don’t have a good set of characters, you can coast for a while on great joke- and gag-writing, especially if you have a cast that’s good at delivering those jokes. A good example of this is the now seemingly inexplicable early critical smash Will & Grace. While a lot of the appeal to critics early in the run of that show had to do with just how fresh and groundbreaking its premise seemed at the time, it’s easy to forget that in that show’s first two or three seasons, the jokes were pretty tight. The show’s writing staff was good at coming up with killer one-liners, and the core cast members were all great at delivering these overtly campy punchlines. But all Will & Grace's characters were broad types, designed solely to be as big and goofy as possible to wring the most laughs out of every line. None of them felt recognizably human very shortly into the run of the show, and their relationships were just as strained. As mentioned above, all comedies eventually become predictable to their audience, simply because we begin to understand the rhythms of the jokes being told, so once the show reaches a point where we can essentially predict what the next line is going to be, it behooves a series to have strong characters and character relationships to fall back on. Will & Grace didn’t have this, and when the jokes began to become predictable, the show rapidly fell apart and revealed what had always been an empty center. (Weirdly, a very similar thing happened to Family Guy.)

Which brings us back to 30 Rock. I highly doubt 30 Rock will ever get as bad as Will & Grace eventually did, if only because the low ratings practically guarantee its cancellation if the critical community and Emmys ever turn on it in a real way. And unlike Will & Grace, 30 Rock has two and a half well-developed characters to fall back on at any point. Liz Lemon (Fey) is a subtly new and different take on the career-oriented woman who still wants to have some sort of life—a type pioneered by Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s—while Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is a coolly ruthless suit with a host of neuroses he somehow keeps perfectly buttoned up. Both of these characters are so consistently written and portrayed that writers as good as the 30 Rock staff would be able to write funny scenes between them in their sleep. In addition, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is fitfully a well-drawn character, when the show is interested in providing some sort of basis for his outright lunacy. His impetuous childishness becomes much more interesting in the face of the fact that he’s a dedicated family man, but the series loses sight of this far too often, choosing instead to make him a manic man-child.

30 Rock quickly learned early in its run that its premise—woman tries to keep things rolling along backstage at a sketch-comedy show—was inherently limited and turned more into a show about people trying to survive working at a network where the mood is frequently apocalyptic. This was probably the right move. But it ended up stranding a lot of characters who no longer served the same purposes under the new premise. Most notable of these characters is Pete (Scott Adsit), a very funny guy who frequently has nothing to do. Also problematic: the awfully written Jenna (Jane Krakowski), who spends most episodes trying to oversell ridiculous material. Rather than develop the loons Liz and Jack work with into actual characters, though, the show chose to leave them mostly as one-dimensional joke machines, like the characters on Will & Grace. In season three, when the show apparently realized it couldn’t live on Liz and Jack scenes alone, the series split the two characters up and sent them into storylines with the show’s various other players, but because of the disparity in development levels between the characters, this often resulted in some weak storylines where, say, Frank (Judah Friedlander) would suddenly be looking up to Jack for no apparent reason. The show has also mostly forgotten many of the bit players in its large ensemble, unable to find space for them in its new premise.

So as it starts its fourth season, that’s where 30 Rock finds itself: in danger of turning into a slightly funnier Will & Grace. (The similarities between the shows don’t stop there either. Both have over-relied on guest stars to patch over poor storylines, and both have been warmly embraced by the Emmys and the mainstream critical community.) There are still plenty of laughs to be gleaned out of the show, especially when Liz, Jack, or Tracy are around, but simply because the show has been on long enough now that the audience can predict its rhythms, it sometimes seems like a series trying desperately to find another gear and failing. 30 Rock is still nowhere near a bad show, but it risks turning into a show where one-dimensional people spend a lot of time shouting at each other.