The Fey factor: Why 30 Rock is finally getting the attention and audiences it deserves

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Imagine the dilemma at NBC. It has this comedy show full of jokes that are a bit too insiderish and clever-clever for mass appeal and ratings are low. Yet, it has this fervent cult following and the critics are all over it. So, the executives at 30 Rockefeller, where NBC lives, take a deep breath and commission it for a second season.

That was how it was 20 years ago when the network was pondering the fate of something called Seinfeld. (They did the right thing: a second season was ordered and aired in 1990. Seinfeld lived for a total of nine seasons, ending in 1998.) Fast-forward to now, however, and to a different show that shares a few things with Seinfeld.

That it also trades mostly in insider-type jokes is clear when you know the series’ name, 30 Rock. It also stars a well-known comedian, though in this case, Tina Fey is not from the dark halls of stand-up like Jerry but the brightly lit studios of Saturday Night Live. The scripts, moreover, trace the shenanigans behind the scenes of a fictitious variety show that looks an awful lot like SNL. (Oh, and its producer, Lorne Michaels, is SNL’s creator.)

Maybe you are already a fan of 30 Rock, also starring Alec Baldwin and a supporting cast that includes Jane Krakowski and Tracy Morgan. Its second series begins on Five USA tomorrow. But even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know of its existence. Take an awards show – any awards shows – and there you will find Baldwin or Fey or one of the other cast members accepting more gongs for the show’s already sagging mantelpiece.

Just like Seinfeld, this show survived the axe despite serial counts against it. Baldwin had some serious PR difficulties in April 2007 midway through the first season after he was taped bawling out his daughter on the telephone. And then there were the audiences. With roughly six million tuning in to each episode, they were decidedly anaemic. It was ranking 102 among the 140 series out there in that season.

Another of 30 Rock’s problems had to do with the madness of the NBC commissioning department. It was first put on the air in the US in 2006 alongside another series that seemed aimed at amusing television-industry types more than anyone else: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It should have been plain that there would not be room for both shows to survive beyond their first season.

Happily, it was Studio 60 which folded. And part of the reason was the 2007 awards. To the slight bewilderment of real-life studio chiefs at 30 Rock, the fictitious 30 Rock managed no fewer than 10 Emmy nominations straight out of the box. And the acclaim has not subsided.

The show pocketed three new honours at the recent Golden Globes, including Best Comedy, Best Actor for Alec Baldwin as well as a Best Actress accolade for Tina Fey. Ms Fey, by the way, holds the title of creator and scriptwriter of the sitcom. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month, Fey and Baldwin won again.

Audiences in what is now season three in the US have at last been growing. Moreover, NBC believes the show has had a strong following among viewers who prefer to watch their television either digitally recorded on DVRs or via streaming video on their laptops.

“It’s been a slow build, but this year we’ve had our largest audience, and they’ve consistently been getting larger,” Ms Krakowski told Newsday earlier this month.

Still, they are not quite there yet. However, a week ago, NBC did announce that when season three is done (all 22 episodes of it), a fourth will be commissioned. The same news was extended to the American version of The Office.

Both sitcoms “continue to represent the gold standard in acclaimed and award-winning series,” said Angela Bromstad, head of NBC Entertainment. “We want the devoted fans of these series to know we are thrilled these quality programs will be back with the same high-calibre episodes that viewers have come to expect.”

There is also the Fey Factor here. Season three began in the US just when Ms Fey had unexpectedly become a megastar everyone loved (well, not certain conservatives) for her remarkable impersonations of Sarah Palin. Suddenly, Fey was the hottest commodity on the small screen.

But this is to take nothing away from others on the programme, including the scriptwriters (of which Ms Fey is one) and Mr Baldwin, whose deadpan delivery as the eccentric, entirely insensitive studio bigwig who has been parachuted in to take charge, has won many plaudits. He plays an affable, self-absorbed, randy buffoon and surely knows that that is what many Americans used to see in him in real life. He is a star lampooning himself and it is hilarious.

If the crowd at NBC used to worry that 30 Rock looked like a show written by television hacks for television hacks and would pass right over the head of the average American viewer, they don’t any more. Judging by the recent ratings spurt for the show, there are plenty of people out there who get the humour.

It is true, though, that for British viewers there may be some cultural references that don’t resonate the way they do with viewers in Manhattan, or even Oklahoma. That may be why 30 Rock has found a berth not on a terrestrial channel in Britain but on Five USA. But don’t be put off by that. You probably weren’t sure the first time you saw Seinfeld either. But just as Jerry hooked you, it is probable that Tina and Alec will do likewise.

Rock stars: Who’s who

Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan): An erratic comic actor who has been the star of Lemon’s show ever since he wheedled his way into the role, with Jack Donaghy’s meddling.

Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin): Donaghy is the interfering and slick network executive who turns Lemon’s show upside down.

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey): As the protagonist, chief writer of TGS, Lemon spends her time warding off catfights and the exec.

Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski): The diva and main star of TGS who is forced to take the sideline when Jordan joins the show.

Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer): Young and overenthusiastic, he has bagged himself the coveted entry level role of NBC page.

The second series of ‘30 Rock’ begins on Five USA at 9pm tomorrow