As a frothing-at-the-mouth 30 Rock super-fan I have an embarrassing confession to make. Until 30 Rock's second episode I was a Tina Fey doubter, a skeptic, a semi-hater, an incorrigible, dyed-in-the-wool inveterate scoffer. When magazines expounded on Fey's comic genius I sat back and scoffed. I thought that the media had so fallen in love with the idea of Fey that they overlooked the disquieting fact that the actual Fey could never live up to the hype.
It's easy to see why people fell in love with the idea that a Second City-trained geek-chick sex goddess with sexy librarian glasses was going to single-handedly make Saturday Night Live hip and edgy and smart and sexy all over again. That's a mighty appealing fantasy. But the reality was that Fey presided over some staggeringly weak, gutless Saturday Night Live seasons and wrote a teen comedy (Mean Girls) whose satire was both tame and obvious. Sure, it towers over other teen comedies but isn't that setting the bar awfully low? The same could be said of certain snuff films as well. Furthermore Fey's signature bit on Saturday Night Live was View skits. Not exactly ground-breaking, Swiftian satire.
Then 30 Rock came along and the reality of Tina Fey suddenly aligned perfectly with her romanticized media image. Fey was now the creator, star and driving creative force behind one of the funniest, smartest, quickest, most beloved and rewatchable comedies of the decade. The media's long-standing love affair with Fey reached a shuddering climax. She was unimpeachably unfuckwitable. I was thoroughly won over. I'd seen the light. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.
So it was fascinating seeing her return to her old stomping grounds as the first post-strike host of Saturday Night Live. Which Fey would show up? The 30 Rockcomic super-genius or the SNL "You just can't do enough Star Jones skits!" semi-hack? The cold open set the tone for the show and went a long way towards answering that question. It was a lengthy Democratic debate skit spoofing how we, as a culture have collectively gone gay for Obama. Yes, even the ladies. Don't ask me how. Like nearly everything that followed, save for a punishingly awful homage to There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, it took on a big, safe, obvious target, boasted thoroughly O.K execution and garnered a steady stream of mild chuckles.
All-purpose ethnic Fred Armisen slathered on the greasepaint to play a strangely caveman-like Obama (sidebar: why is it O.K for Saturday Night Live to keep blackface alive?), the object of the debate moderators' slavish, transparent devotion. For most of the skit Obama passively soaks in the media's love, seldom saying more than a few words. There was a germ of a trenchant satirical insight here–that we're projecting all our fantasies and aspirations onto Obama, seeing him as a ravishing blank slate who can be whoever and whatever we want him to be (MLK, JFK, Denzel Washington reborn as a politician, Senator McDreamy) rather than what he is–that was largely diminished by having Armisen's not bad Obama pontificate at length in a voice as folksy as the Kansas plains and as stirring as the pulpit on Sunday.
Beyond illustrating 30 Rock producer Lorne Michaels' still-formidable genius for cross-promotion, Fey's presence sent an unmistakable pro-writer message. For it's long been a fixture of Fey's mythology that she's first and foremost a writer who more or less has to be pushed onto the stage to perform. Appropriately enough Steve Martin (popping up on Saturday Night Live WTF?) appeared during Fey's monologue for a cute little bit where he coached Fey on how to perform for an audience. Martin and Fey clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves. Their enthusiasm was infectious. At this point Martin has more to gain from being associated with Fey than vice versa. It gives him an opportunity to once again play the suave, urbane comedy legend, a big step-up from his current image as a shameless hack who appears largely in shitty kid's movies (see also Murphy, Eddie)
From there Saturday Night Live took on a veritable shooting gallery of easy, barn-door-sized targets. Game shows? Spoofing the parade of skankitude that constitutes Rock Of Love? A skit about an embarrassing wedding speech? Somebody is clearly bucking for a Peabody. I am not generally a fan of pop culture references as punchlines, as evidenced by my burning desire to spend a decade or so torturing the people behind Epic Movie but I let out several guilty little chuckles during a Celebrity Apprentice parody where Darrell Hammond dealt with such walking punchlines as the creepy Jon Benet Ramsey guy and the weird dancing dude from the Six Flags commercials. I laughed, but I didn't feel good about myself in the morning.
The first episode back was a lot more female-friendly than usual. With Fey taking center stage it was an unabashed girly show with a foxy young featured player named, I dunno, Jugsy Malone (hi yo! Gotta keep dese broads in their place) making a splashy debut and plenty of women-centered skits, as well as a comic op-ed type piece for Fey on "Weekend Update" that was pointed and political if not particularly funny.
Fey appeared in skits infrequently during her epic stint on Saturday Night Live but she was a relaxed and confident performer throughout the show. Slap a wig on her and remove the trademark glasses and she becomes surprisingly unrecognizable. The show was curiously devoid of 30 Rock references though a Gaybraham Lincoln skit (four seven and seven beers ago!) wouldn't have felt out of place. All in all it was a thoroughly passable return from a musty, sturdy old cultural institution. Sadly, it's probably only going to get worse from here.
: Grade: B- Stray Observations– –What did you guys make of the lack of 30 Rock references? Good lord, if anyone deserves a few victory laps it's Fey for that show –Similarly what do you guys think of the new Tina Fey/Amy Poehler vehicle? It reminds me of the time back in Madison when I was exiting a theater and walked past people barking "Hey, who wants a pass to the new Tim Meadows movie?" Who doesn't? –How awful was that There Will Be Blood skit? It was like "Hey, here's something you're familiar with! Only now it's an incongruously unlikely TV show! How crazy is that?" –The less said about Carrie Underwood the better. Seriously, she was the best they could come up with for the first show back? –What does it say about the show that Mike Huckabee got bigger laughs and seemed to have better timing than most of the cast? –Requisite semi-pervy observation: Kristin Wiig looked damn good in vinyl pants