Commentary: Should ’30 Rock’ Change For Ratings Success?

by | November 10, 2009 at 2:26 PM | 30 Rock, 42-Inch Television

Padma Lakshmi and Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock (NBC)

Padma Lakshmi and Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock (NBC)

It would be nice if acclaim and success went hand-in-hand, but unfortunately they don’t. We live in a world where ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ can gross over $400 million even though it was eviscerated by nearly everyone, while the universally praised ‘The Hurt Locker’ can barely crack even $15 million. But such is life in the oxymoronic landscape of popular culture, where rarely are things both popular and cultural simultaneously. I bring this up because it’s just about that time of year when people start complaining about ‘30 Rock‘s’ lack of viewership: Why aren’t more people watching this great show?!

Now in season four—with three Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series hanging around its neck, Flavor Flav-style—it feels like as good a time as any to state once and for all what should be obvious: ‘30 Rock’ will never be a hit series in the traditional sense of the word. Buzz? Sure thing. Cache? Absolutely. Blog chatter? You betcha. But when it comes to ‘30 Rock,’ no amount of critical praise, Emmys or famous guest stars can change the fact that the comedy is viewer deficient.

Put it this way: if the combined powers of Oprah Winfrey and Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin couldn’t make ‘30 Rock’ a hit last fall, the chances of it ever happening are about as likely as Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama becoming Facebook friends.

Of course, this is to take nothing away from the quality of ‘30 Rock.’ Despite the fact that this season has felt slightly off when compared to the towering efforts of the previous three—if there is a sin, it’s that the episodes have failed to strike a great balance between all the characters—‘30 Rock’ is still in the upper-echelon of television comedies. That fans are losing some interest—in this era of everything must jump the shark, there are times when I wonder if people look to find faults just because they’re bored—might have more to do with fatigue than anything else.

If you were to tell me that ‘30 Rock’ was one of the four best comedies on television, but also the fourth best comedy on NBC Thursday nights, as of this moment, I would have a hard time arguing that fact. But that speaks more to the excellence of ‘Community,’ ‘Parks & Recreation’ and ‘The Office’ than anything else.

That fatigue is one of the reasons why ‘30 Rock’ has seen its ratings fall from year-to-year—even as a fan, it’s hard to watch straight two hours of like-minded comedies—but, most likely, the drop has to do with the fact that ‘30 Rock’ is just one of “those shows:” it has a limited audience potential because of its tone. This is a comedy that flaunts its insider-y jokes and exhibits real disdain towards anyone who doesn’t get them. Like ‘Community,’ it’s too smug and condescending to ever become a mainstream success.

This season in particular—with Fey’s Liz Lemon sent to find a new cast member that speaks to the “real American”—has been particularly cutting. If you’re reading this, ‘30 Rock’ has mocked you in some way. (Heaven help you if you live in San Francisco, or, as Alec Baldwin’s Jack Dongahy called it, “The People’s Gaypublic of Drugifornia.”) Take it from me: you don’t get to keep many friends by constantly making fun of them.

There are ways to fix this fundamental problem, of course. ‘30 Rock’ could get nicer. The series could take a page out of ‘The Office’ playbook and give us a “Jim and Pam”-type relationship between Liz and Jack (don’t tell me you can’t feel their sexual tension through the screen), something that would wash a lot of the smugness away. But by softening the blows, ‘30 Rock’ then risks alienating their current fans for the chance at just a handful more. Lest we forget that ‘The Office’—which is considered a success—only gets about three million more viewers per week than ‘30 Rock.’

What’s the answer then? Simply: acceptance. Unlike the similarly-praised-but-woefully-unwatched ‘Arrested Development,’ ‘30 Rock’ won’t get canceled any time soon, if only because NBC has nothing else to replace it with. So if you’re a fan, don’t fret; and if you’re not, don’t bother watching. ‘30 Rock’ is what it always has been. Why should anything change now? As the saying goes, if it walks like a duck…

Three More Inches

Not that I was expecting something worthy of Skinemax, but wasn’t the “controversial” threesome on ‘Gossip Girl’ just a tad bit benign? The Parents Television Council has nothing to worry about.

Instead of being “insanely supportive” of ‘Fringe’ despite low ratings—at least according to J.J. Abrams himself—why doesn’t Fox just bite the bullet and move the excellent series to another night? Sometimes admitting a mistake is a good thing.

And finally… First ‘Lipstick Jungle’ and now ‘Eastwick.’ Lindsay Price is rapidly becoming a show killer.