The last two pilots of the fall season rolled out on NBC last night. One was fairly high-profile and not very funny. The other I doubt anyone has particularly high expectations for and despite a few absolutely brutal clunkers it made me laugh consistently. The first one is the new Tina Fey vehicle "30 Rock," with Alec Baldwin, and the other is "Twenty Good Years," which pairs John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor.
"30 Rock" has had a troubled development cycle, as Tim Goodman recounts in his review. The pilot had to be reshot with some cast changes, delaying its debut until after the similarly themed (but quite differently executed) "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip" had been running for a month. I don't think that the same problems that a lot of viewers (though not me) have had with "Studio 60" will apply to "30 Rock" as well. "Studio 60" asks you to buy into the idea that the weekly production of a late-night comedy show is the absolute end of the world. Jon has written over at Screen Jam that he simply doesn't accept that premise. I certainly don't accept Aaron Sorkin's contention that television comedy is the proud vanguard of core American liberal values (and I couldn't be farther from accepting Sorkin's politics, the major reason I admired "The West Wing" from a distance while never watching it for more than a few minutes at a time). However, I'm willing to accept that the characters of "Studio 60" do, and that's enough for me. I think one of the effects that watching nothing but science fiction and fantasy TV growing up has had on me is that a believable real-world premise is the last of my concerns when it comes to getting on board with a new show. The first thing I ask of a show is that it has a perspective, and the second thing I want to see is great dialogue. "Studio 60" has those, and while it's certainly still working out some kinks ("West Coast Feed" was by a wide margin the weakest episode of the run so far) my immediate affection for the Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford characters will keep me watching at least until they have three or four absolute bombs in a row. I will add that Sarah Paulson's Juliette Lewis impression was the first genuinely funny thing she's done on the show and I hope that Sorkin is aware he needs to start selling harder on Paulson's qualities as a comedienne if the show isn't going to continue losing viewers by the millions every week.
For "Studio 60" comedy, while important, is a secondary issue. "30 Rock" is a sitcom, and the fact that the pilot isn't very funny is a big problem. I admit that part of my problem with approaching the show is I just don't dig Tina Fey. I'm not sure from where her good reputation comes. "Saturday Night Live" had stopped being funny long before her stint as head writer, and she didn't make it any funnier. As "Weekend Update" host she was stiff and desperate-seeming. (Of course, what do I know, I thought Norm MacDonald was hilarious.) To me the movie Mean Girls, much appreciated in some circles, was no better or worse than any other in the teen-queen genre. Fey's act is the smart girl who desperately wants to be told she's pretty, and to me that got old a long time ago. There are four women like that in my immediate family. For "30 Rock" Fey has written some good material for Judah Friedlander and (especially) Alec Baldwin, but as a lead she's flat and unlikable, and if the show continues to be a refuge for her old "SNL" buddies, it's not going to get funnier any time soon. NBC mercifully decided to force the punishingly unfunny Rachel Dratch out of the Harriet Hayes role, but showing misplaced loyalty Fey gave Dratch a few scenes in the pilot as an animal trainer. Each one slowed the show's already shaky momentum to a dead stop.
The other huge problem is the casting of Tracy Morgan as the third lead after Fey and Baldwin. Morgan is the definition of a one-dimensional sketch comedy actor. His performance as Tracy Jordan, a supposed movie star patterned after Martin Lawrence (there's even a Big Momma's House parody in the pilot in case it wasn't blatantly obvious enough already), is good for a couple of chuckles in his first scene but the joke is old before the end of the show's first half-hour is over. You know, whatever Fey and Sorkin might think, it's a lot harder to write a show with sustained characters and real relationships than a bunch of sketches that black out after five minutes. "30 Rock" is going nowhere fast, with all apologies to Alec Baldwin, who's terrific. If after this show is cancelled he could slide on over and take Steven Weber's role on "Studio 60," that would be super.
"Twenty Good Years" barely even has a premise. The show casts John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, gives them characters named "John" and "Jeffrey," and expects them to be funny. You know what? They kind of are. Lithgow was able to carry "3rd Rock from the Sun," a woefully badly written show, for six seasons with nothing but the sheer ridiculous conviction of his performance. "Twenty Good Years" is somewhat better written and provides Lithgow with a worthy foil in the perennially underrated Tambor, who is taking a huge step down here after "Arrested Development" but does his best with the material provided. There's absolutely nothing to see in the "Twenty" pilot besides the standard sitcom tropes -- there's even a baby, right in the pilot, believe it or not -- but it made me laugh. A lot. When I was fast-forwarding through the commercials, I continued to laugh. Perhaps my mind was making a subconscious connection to Lithgow's landmark performance in 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Or maybe this is just a funny, if unoriginal, little show. I could go either way on this one. If the idea of Lithgow in a Speedo makes you smile even a little, you should check this one out before its inevitable cancellation.
Hey, the fourth season of "Scrubs" came out on DVD on Tuesday! Yay, "Scrubs." You know how far Heather Graham's star has fallen? She's not listed on the back of the box as a major guest star and Matthew Perry, Tom Cavanagh, and Molly Shannon (speaking of monumentally unfunny recent "SNL" castmembers) are. Graham wasn't just a major player during her "Scrubs" run but she was also quite good, joining a long list of actors who have been good on "Scrubs" and in nothing else: Tara Reid, Scott Foley, Brendan Fraser (who was fantastic on "Scrubs," I had to watch his episodes immediately over again because the first time through my mind wouldn't accept it), Amy Smart, the list goes on. You would imagine all of these actors would be sending huge baskets of muffins to "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence on a daily basis until he agreed to create shows for them. What is Bill Lawrence up to these days? Oh, wow, he's attached to the Fletch prequel, now entering its fifteenth year in development. Kevin Smith was attached to it when Clerks was still in theaters. Is the world that hungry for another Fletch movie?