With 30 Rock coming to an abbreviated end in its seventh season, I’ve been watching and re-watching past seasons. A friend of mine once complained to me about movies and shows about making movies and shows, and I understand his frustration, but the media-making premise is solid. It has a lengthy history going all the way back to Shakespeare’s plays but also includes many classic television shows, from serious, news-room dramas like Lou Grant to silly comedies like Newsradio and WKRP in Cincinnati. The media made on these shows is only the anchor for the interaction of the characters, and as long as the characters are good, the rest is gravy. I mean, Party Down is about catering in the same way that That 70s Show is about the 1970s. Compare the latter to the short-lived That 80s Show, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. A good TV-show premise gets out of the way and lets the characters drive the narrative. Cheers isn’t bout the bar; the bar is only the setting, but there’s something special about the making of a show being the setting for another show.
Aaron Sorkin’s only series not continued after its first season was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which ran on NBC for a twenty-two episode, single season in 2006 and 2007, the same season that 30 Rock debuted on the same network. In spite of Studio 60‘s win in the ratings, 30 Rock stayed on while Studio 60 wasn’t renewed. Watching the show, you can tell that it was very expensive to make. I’m only halfway through the season, but so far, I wish that they’d kept making it.
Studio 60 gave me a new respect for Matthew Perry. As writer Matt Albie, he only rarely pulls Chandleresque reactions to the situations he faces as the new head writer on the show. Little Sorkinian gems like the following exchange between Albie and Harriett Hayes (one of the stars of the show within the show and Albie’s on-and-off love interest; played by Sarah Paulson) give this show its shine:
Harriet: I got a laugh at the table read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?
Matt: That’s one laugh out of thirty you’re going to get tonight.
Harriet: What did I do wrong?
Matt: You asked for the laugh.
Harriet: What did I do at the table read?
Matt: You asked for the butter.
Albie’s partner Danny Tripp (producer/director; played by the inimitable Bradley Whitford) is just so damn likable. Their struggles with standards and practices and network politics, as well as constant budget concerns, are tempered by the new head of NBS, Jordan McDeere (who is loosely based on Jamie Tarses, who was head of ABC while Sorkin’s Sports Night was on; played by Amanda Peet), who brought them back on after previous head writer Wes Mendell (their old boss; played by Judd Hirsch) melts down on air. The power dynamic is refreshing, as it is more complex than just Creatives versus Suits. The guys who run the show have someone in power on their side, and even though the hierarchy still includes the usual power struggles with higher-ups (most often with McDeere’s boss, Jack Rudolph; played by Steven Weber), it’s handled with more nuance than usual.
Power dynamics aside, equal time is given to the interactions between the writers, actors, producers, and assistants. The boardroom might determine a lot of the show’s conflicts, but live on stage is where it lives and dies (and I adore the Nicolas Cage bits). Behind these scenes is where the pressure builds.
Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, as well as many more members of the team who brought us Twin Peaks, On the Air tells the story of the 1950s variety show, “The Lester Guy Show.” In true Lynch/Frost fashion, the pressure that builds while trying to put together a live show always blows everything sideways at air time. On the Air was only actually on the air (on ABC) for three episodes, though they filmed seven. Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan, who also played Dick Tremayne in Twin Peaks) is the washed-up yet spoiled thespian, who is immediately imposed upon by the dimwitted Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), who becomes the star of his show (a situation noticeably similar to 30 Rock‘s addition of Tracy Jordan to the cast of “The Girlie Show”). Special mention must be made of Buddy Budwaller (played by Miguel Ferrer, who played Agent Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks) as he is the foil to the show’s fun and few play that role better than Miguel Ferrer (see also his appearance as FBI Agent Bill Steele in season 2, episode 10 of Lie to Me). Overall On the Air as tedious as it is hilarious, and you almost have to be a David Lynch fan to like it, but like most of the other shows assembled here, it pays homage to the golden age of television as only Lynch and Frost could.
All of the above shows deal with a live television broadcast, whereas Greg the Bunny‘s show within the show, “Sweetknuckle Junction,” is prerecorded. This lowers the on-screen stakes a bit, but the Greg the Bunny is about the same things as the others: the behind the scenes drama and politics of making a TV show. Page One of all of these shows includes a major change in the cast. In Studio 60 it includes a change in the writing staff as Wes Mendell (played by Judd Hirsch) loses his shit on screen about censorship and such, setting the stage for the show’s on going strife with Standards and Practices. On the Air starts with the addition of Betty to the cast (see above), while 30 Rock of course starts with the addition of Tracy Jordon (Tracy Morgan) to the cast of “The Girlie Show.” And Greg the Bunny unwittingly ends up as the new star of “Sweetknuckle Junction.” Planting big changes on Page One is screenwriting 101, and these shows illustrate exactly why: They get us in on the narrative just as the characters are dealing with those changes; we’re invested in their story right from the start.
Sean S. Baker, Spencer Chinoy, and Dan Milano’s Greg the Bunny has had several incarnations as a public-access show (Junktape), short film spoofs on IFC, and a more recent spin-off on MTV (Warren the Ape), but the show they did for Fox is the real gem. Pairing their great puppet characters with humans played by Seth Green, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Levy, Dina Walters, and Bob Gunton, eleven episodes made it to air in 2002 (two more unaired shows are included on the DVD). If On the Air is 30 Rock on LSD, then Greg the Bunny is just plain high. Puppets in Greg the Bunny, though second-class citizens, are citizens nonetheless (a trope the writers use to great comedic advantage). The show is fun and funny and plays on its obvious classic forebears like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
Similarly, Studio 60‘s references to classic TV shows, including Lou Grant from Mary Tyler Moore (“I hate spunk!”) and actually including Ed Asner in a minor role on the show (as executive Wilson White), not to mention Judd Hirsch, and 30 Rock‘s parade of guest appearances (e.g., Carrie Fisher, Jennifer Aniston, Brian Williams, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Aaron Sorkin, Fred Armisen, Michael Keaton, Andy Richter, Al Gore, et al.), including Tim Conway as almost himself, make these shows each slices of comprehensive television. That is, their allusions are not only to other similar shows but also to their genres and the television medium itself.
With that said, I get the gripe of my friend about shows about shows. His beef is really about the self-indulgence of Hollywood and their losing touch with anything outside of the studio. There are plenty of other things to talk about with all of these shows, but I find it interesting when a medium has become declassified enough to be this reflexive. To varying degrees, all of these shows let us get backstage and right in the middle of things. We already deal in meta-media with shows like Talk Soup or The Daily Show and follow actor salaries and box-office earnings as much as we do plots and characters, but when we speak fluently in a medium such as television, it opens itself up to us in a new way. Once we’ve assimilated it into our media lexicon, we can explore its inner-workings in a way that was alien to us in its newness.