A strange thing happened on American TV about a year ago: the NBC network scheduled two shows with an identical premise almost simultaneously. On the one hand, you had Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin's first piece of major television since he created The West Wing. On the other, you had 30 Rock, from the Saturday Night Live stable. Both programmes were about the backstage adventures of the people working on a live TV comedy show: but Studio 60 was a serious intelligent drama, while 30 Rock was merely a frothy sitcom.
One year later, where are they both? Well, Studio 60 is lying dead in the water, cancelled after a disastrously received season: while 30 Rock has a couple of Emmys and is happily launching into its second series. To our American readers it may seem a little late to be discussing all this, but over here in the UK we're only just getting the chance to start comparing the two shows - well, legally, anyway. Studio 60 has been running for about two months on More 4, while 30 Rock starts on Five this Thursday, October 11th, at 10.45pm. Which, amusingly, overlaps quite nicely with Studio 60's 10pm slot. If you have to choose between one of the two, I'm here to make the choice easier for you.
30 Rock 's creator Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of a comedy show on NBC (whose offices are based at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, hence the title). The Girlie Show stars Liz's old mate Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and has a dedicated team cranking it out live once a week. Into this cosy setup comes new network Vice President Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who seeks to make his mark by 'improving' The Girlie Show. His plan is to add Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to the cast: an actor with a string of no-brainer movie blockbusters under his belt, who also comes with a hefty entourage and a number of worrying personality disorders. As The Girlie Show slowly mutates into TGS With Tracy Jordan, Liz has to struggle to keep everything under her control.
I've already seen the first series through nefarious means (though I've subsequently redeemed myself by buying the DVD), so I can warn Five viewers in advance that 30 Rock takes a few weeks to find its feet. It needs that time to set up the characters and the situation, but in the process sometimes feels a little light on actual jokes. Those early episodes aren't totally devoid of jokes, however, and one of the main reasons for that is Alec Baldwin's spiffy performance as Jack Donaghy. I never really understood Baldwin in the past - to us UK viewers who didn't catch him in his early TV years, he seemed to have risen without trace, inexplicably getting the sort of movie guest roles that people are given after they're famous. But like most of the key players on 30 Rock (notably Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan) he's got a strong association with Saturday Night Live - and he handles the comedy here beautifully, from his gloriously over-the-top entrance (kicking down his predecessor's door and declaring him dead) onwards.
The relationship between Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon is fascinating to watch: the obvious route would be to establish some sort of sexual tension between the two, and although that never really happens, there are frissons whenever the two meet that keep you guessing. Liz's problems with her various relationships are a recurring thread of the show, and Fey's sheer likeability - established in the pilot's opening scene, where she buys a huge number of hot dogs just to make a point - makes her emotional ups and downs delightful to watch. As for the show she's running... well, part of the thing that makes 30 Rock so enjoyable is that it's a story of people just scraping through the working day. Tracy Jordan's presence is initially massively disruptive, but with time and a lot of compromising everyone makes it all come together in time for the show every week.
Which leads us to why 30 Rock kicks the arse of Studio 60 so comprehensively. Warren Ellis pretty much nails the two main problems Studio 60 had: the pomposity of its belief that it could Make Television Better, and the painful inadequacy of what it offered as an alternative. There's no denying that the Judd Hirsch rant that opens its pilot is hair-raisingly brilliant, as he rages about what makes current television so bad. But the show-within-a-show of Studio 60 is being held up as a beacon of how TV should be: and it's terrible, with sketches that die on their feet and so-called 'controversial' content that barely registers a flicker of interest. Characters have to keep telling us in dialogue how funny and brilliant it all is, and we can see with our own eyes that this simply isn't true. The cumulative effect is to make Studio 60 the most punchably smug thing on television this millennium, reaching some sort of nadir in the episode where Matthew Perry goes recruiting at a comedy club, and hires a comic who's just been booed off stage. Because to get that sort of audience reaction, he obviously must be saying something significant.
Since both Studio 60 and 30 Rock centre around comedy shows loosely based on Saturday Night Live, it makes sense that the one written by SNL alumni comes off best in a comparison test. 30 Rock's aspirations are more reasonable, for one thing: it never suggests at any point that TGS With Tracy Jordan is actually any good, preferring to get comedy out of amazement that anything gets made at all in the ego-driven environment of network TV. It's smarter than Studio 60 because rather than fatuously trying to define some sort of golden ideal it can't possibly achieve, it simply acknowledges that this is the way things are, while having some fun with that. And it does it with a light enough touch to get in some pleasing bites at the hands that feed it - NBC, its parent company General Electric, and some of its network stablemates. (Hence one beautiful passing reference, during a hellish dress rehearsal of TGS, that the show could end up "worse than the time we did that Gilbert and Sullivan parody...")
Like I said, it takes time to bed in. After a few weeks setting the scene, the show hits an early peak about six episodes in with a storyline featuring Liz's reunion with her slobby ex Dennis (Dean Winters), and it just keeps building from there. So stick with 30 Rock: it's smart, funny, and very astute about the compromises we all have to make in our jobs. And unlike Studio 60, it's made by people who can write for shit anymore.