Pilot (season one, episode one; originally aired 10/11/2006)
In which TGS finds its third heat before 30 Rock does…
If you want to see a great pilot, watch the first episode of Cheers. It’s charming, funny, and well constructed. If you want to see an awkward, sweaty pilot episode, watch 30 Rock. I will not be joining you because I never want to watch that mess again.—Tina Fey, Bossypants
Not to immediately leap into the voice of Liz Lemon, one of my great television heroes, but: Comedy pilots are the worst. A network sitcom is lucky enough to have one or two elements in good working order by the time its first episode makes it to air; most fall short of that. 30 Rock is one of the lucky ones, but it still begins with a shaky half-hour: Jokes fail to land, characters are clumsily introduced (“Hey, you gotta tell that NBC page to take it down a notch.” “Who, Kenneth?”), and there’s an emphasis on getting The Girlie Show to air that makes for a less-than-thrilling watch. Most egregiously, the pacing’s all off, with Liz (Tina Fey) spending an eternity of a second act courting potential TGS star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan).
But those are all imperfections the good TV comedies spackle over in time. The great TV comedies—and with the benefit of having seen the rest of the series, those of us in 2014 can attest that 30 Rock eventually became one of the greats—have elements in place from page one that persuade the viewer to come back for episode two. This pilot has one of those elements present on its first page; it takes a few more scenes to introduce the other.
30 Rock’s primary protagonist is introduced via an argument over hot-dog-cart etiquette. If that wasn’t an appropriate enough introduction to Elizabeth Miervaldis Lemon, then the brief summary of that interaction she offers to Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit)—“You know how I hate it when people cheat or break rules?” “Yes I do.” “Well, I just spent 150 bucks on wieners”—would be. That give-and-take even excuses some of the clunky exposition called out above: This is Fey’s pilot script telling us twice in the space of two minutes that Liz can’t abide by shortcuts and smooth talkers, and yet Fey’s attitude—and the degree to which she knows this character—sails right over the choppy dialogue. Liz isn’t the That Girl type set up in the pilot’s jokey opening montage—she’s Mary Richards with Kermit The Frog’s hair trigger. More importantly, she’s a fictionalized version of former Saturday Night Live head writer and former savings-account pitchwoman Tina Fey. If 30 Rock didn’t get that part correct, then there’d be a sincere reason to bail after the pilot.
The series’ other flash of brilliance bursts onto the scene like the Kool-Aid Man just past the 4-minute mark. “Gary’s dead,” Jack Donaghy is alive, and Alec Baldwin has just made the most dynamic sitcom entrance of the 2000s. Baldwin was Fey’s first choice to play the new boss at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and it could really only be Baldwin in the role: He has that natural charisma that reminds TGS star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) of a character from General Hospital, combined with the deadpan comedic timing that made him the most frequent host in Saturday Night Live history. (There’s also that perverse thrill, as stated in Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, of hearing staunchly liberal Baldwin “articulate passionately the opposite of everything he believes in real life.”) Donaghy is the perfect foil to Lemon, the archly conservative Lou Grant to her Mary, and they waste no time in getting to their “I hate spunk” moment. This exchange will define Jack and Liz’s relationship for the entirety of 3o Rock’s improbably long run.
Jack: That’s why they sent me here to retool your show.
Liz: Retool what now?
Jack: I’m the new vice president of East Coast television and microwave programming.
Liz: That sounds like you program microwave ovens.
Jack: I like you. You have the boldness of a much younger woman.
The problem with the pilot, then, is that everything else around Liz and Jack is in need of retooling. This episode is a prime example of why primetime comedies reward an audience’s patience, but 30 Rock had already undergone an extensive research-and-development phase. 30 Rock took some four years to make it to the small screen, delayed by rewrites, recasting, reshoots, and a pregnancy. It was overseen by real-life executives who represent the positive parts of Jack Donaghy’s personality (recently ousted Fox chief Kevin Reilly, who in his time at NBC pushed Fey to write what she knew, rather than setting her pilot in the world of cable news) and the negative (Jeff Zucker, whose litany of sins includes skepticism about the show’s prospects). It would be, in effect, Fey’s own equivalent to Jack’s beloved trivection oven, only it came to market without the source of its third heat: That electrifying sense of comic pacing that’s not fully on display until episode seven, “Tracy Does Conan.”
Until then, we watch through the lumps. The comparatively slack pacing. The way the actors fail to grasp quintessentially 30 Rock quips like “Yeah, if I was president of the Philippines” or “You mean this eye? Okay, this eye, it doesn’t open all the way because when I was little my sister peed in it.” The insistence on pegging storylines to the actual production of TGS. That’s where Reilly’s advice to Fey may have rung false: Writing about the backstage goings-on at an SNL-type show might be interesting in a showbiz-soap fashion (and even then: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip), but it can be rough, inside-baseball going for a sitcom. Jumping off that point: Liz spends way too much time fielding pointers from Jack, Tracy, and Pete in the pilot. It lays the groundwork for her list of drunken demands in the pilot’s final scene, and it gives the character something to grow toward, but boy does she ever get talked at a lot in this episode.
The other good thing about that parade of advice is that it provides the pilot with its second piece of meta-commentary-by-metaphor: “Don’t buy all the hot dogs.” That’s Pete helping Liz down from her job-quitting ledge, but it’s a sound guiding principle for any pilot episode—and for 30 Rock moving forward. Buying all the hot dogs is the basic impulse of a pilot script, the flopsweat-drenched desire to have a story, a cast, a universe all in their proper place by the end of the premiere episode. The 30 Rock pilot is proof positive that it doesn’t have to be that way. Cheers, that Platonic sitcom ideal Fey cites in the pages of Bossypants, had everything figured out in its first episode, but even that show evolved and adapted in ways that aren’t apparent from “Give Me A Ring Sometime.” The minutiae of TGS is one hot dog that 30 Rock didn’t need to buy. It brings Tracy into the show’s orbit, provides a constant source of anxiety for Jenna, and would always be the source of story-generating friction between Liz and Jack. But TGS is the show’s workplace setting, not its reason for being. Befitting a show renowned for its speediness, it wouldn’t be long before 30 Rock recognized this.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of 30 Rock’s first season, which, due to the timing of TV Club’s launch, is the only season of the show we didn’t get to cover in real time. 30 Rock is an all-time favorite of mine—though, as you can tell from the review above, I’m not particularly high on its first few episodes. I promise there’ll be a lot more positive opinions from “Jack-Tor” forward. And since the rest of these reviews will cover two episodes per week, “Jack-Tor” is only two weeks away!
- The show starts filling out Tracy’s fictional résumé immediately: One episode down, and we already know about Black Cop White Cop, Who Dat Ninja, and Honky Grandma Be Trippin’.
- Jenna’s not completely off the mark with her “Scotty from General Hospital” observation: That character shares a surname with Alec Baldwin, and Baldwin himself was a featured player on GH’s medically themed rival, The Doctors.
- Footage of the unaired 30 Rock pilot, with Rachel Dratch in the role of Jenna, emerged last year; as much as the broadcast pilot feels like an episode of a completely different show, the 30 Rock of the unaired pilot is a series from a totally different world. Dratch is a talented comedian, and I sincerely missed her recurring cameos when they disappeared from the show’s toolbox, but the way Dratch and Fey’s individual styles complement one another was better suited for sketch comedy than it was for the conflict-hungry world of narrative TV.
- I have fewer misgivings about the ultimate sunsetting of Lonny Ross’ Josh Girard, an obvious Jimmy Fallon surrogate regularly swallowed up by the larger personalities within the 30 Rock ensemble. He makes a good first impression though, failing to wow his co-workers with a Jay Leno impersonation before demonstrating the foundation of any good take on Ray Romano: “Debra! My brother’s tall!”
- Fill in the blanks with Jack Donaghy: “Five inches, but it’s thick.”
- And don’t call Liz Shirley: “He’s got charisma.” “No, that’s Charisma over there!”
- As cynical as 30 Rock can get, it always had this exchange between Kenneth and Pete at its core: “I just love television so much.” “We all do.”