When NBC’s fall schedule was announced last month, two of its half-dozen new series stood out: the Tina Fey-starring comedy, “30 Rock,” and the Aaron Sorkin drama, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” American Idol
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
Their common denominator? Each in its own way takes a look behind the scenes at a sketch-comedy show not unlike NBC’s own longrunning “Saturday Night Live.” Jointly, “Studio 60” and “30 Rock” (one of whose executive producers is “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels) are reaching new heights in network narcissism: One-third of NBC’s freshman slate is about NBC.
Shows about shows have been around forever, of course. Life not once but twice removed is a time-honored TV tradition that reaches back at least to Rob, Buddy and Sally churning out scripts for “The Alan Brady Show” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Ted Baxter anchoring WJM’s newscast on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Granted, those shows-within-shows were totally fictitious. Not quite so for “Studio 60” and “30 Rock.”
But who’s complaining? Even though the pilot for either series could still be revised and isn’t yet approved for review, in their current versions both look very promising.
Promising, and then some: Maybe they foreshadow a whole new age of media self-involvement.
Live diatribe“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is a richly filmed hour with a large ensemble cast on the order of “The West Wing,” which Sorkin also created.
The pilot begins with a clash between a network censor and the executive producer of the show-within-the-show, “Studio 60” — a live late-night series that seems different from “SNL” principally in that it airs from Hollywood (not New York) on Fridays (not Saturdays) on the National Broadcasting System (not the National Broadcasting Company).
The producer loses his power play. Moments before airtime, the politically sensitive sketch he was fighting for is yanked.
He is fed up. Stepping in front of the camera and halting the action, he warns viewers, “It’s not going to be a very good show tonight and I think you should change the channel.”
He then rails that “Studio 60,” which in the past represented “cutting-edge political and social satire,” has “gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network.”
He rages against other shows where contestants are “eating worms for money” and competing “to see how much they can be like Donald Trump.” He rants about the medium as a whole: “That remote in your hand is a crack pipe.”
Eventually, he’s cut off. Then he’s fired.
How to save the show and redeem the network? NBS’ president (Amanda Peet) has a brainstorm: Sign the brilliant bad-boy writing partners (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) who were canned from “Studio 60” years earlier, then got big making movies.
Hiring them back to run the show, she reasons, “is a tacit admission of guilt and a silent act of contrition, and that’s what’s required here.”
Wow! Could “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” be taken as a tacit admission of guilt and a silent act of contrition by NBC for, hmmmmm, one transgression or another?
Network, skewer thyself“30 Rock” hits even closer to home. Literally. The title of this zany single-camera comedy refers, of course, to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Manhattan address of NBC Universal and corporate parent General Electric — and, like the real-life “SNL,” home to “The Girlie Show,” a live sketch-comedy program whose head writer is Liz Lemon (played by Fey, herself an “SNL” veteran).
In the current version of the “30 Rock” pilot you learn that, after just five weeks, “The Girlie Show” has scored good reviews and robust ratings.
Even so, Liz is summoned to the office of Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), who introduces himself as new VP of Development for NBC-GE-Universal-Kmart.
This triggers the obvious question: Does the company now own Kmart?
“No,” Jack replies. “So why are you dressed like we do?”
Then he changes the subject to “my greatest triumph,” the real-life GE Trivection Oven, delivering a pitch for how it cooks food faster and better.
“With three kinds of heat,” he sums up, straying from GE’s official spiel to slyly bring the subject back to television, “you can cook a turkey in 22 minutes.”
Then, before you can say “try and skip THAT ad, suckah,” Jack is claiming for himself yet another job description.
“I’m the new Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming,” he informs Liz. His urgent mission: retooling her show, which, he fears, is “missing that third kind of heat.”
What’s the third kind of heat? Skewering yourself in bigger, cleverer ways than your critics can? Turning satire into product plugs and cross-promotion? Embarking on a new course of strategic narcissism?
If so, “30 Rock” and “Studio 60” could really be hot.