Tina Fey could not be a more perfect choice for the writer/actress around whom to build a sit-com about television writers. Not only is she a riot without being a stereotype but she was the head writer for the most well-known late-night sketch comedy show ever, airing on the actual network portrayed in the show. NBC’s willingness to parody itself and its longest running show gives this show comedic possibilities that it would not have otherwise. (Their parent company really does make ovens.)
In the pilot’s cold open, Fey’s Liz Lemon lashes out at a guy who cuts in line at a hotdog stand. A brash New Yorker with a dash of Mary Tyler Moore optimism, she buys all of the hotdogs so that she can hand them out to people she deems more deserving.
Back at NBC, Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), a page, is giving a studio tour, which makes the viewer feel like we, too, are getting a backstage look. “This is the set of The Girlie Show,” he tells the eager tourists. If you’re watching the pilot for the first time after having seen other episodes of the show (as I was) you may be like, “What the hell is The Girlie Show?” Then you realize it’s the source of the acronym in the show-within-a-show we know today as TGS with Tracy Jordan. But we’re getting to that…
Kenneth points out head writer Liz Lemon as she returns to the studio with her giant box of hot dogs. She enters the writer’s room and immediately there is bitching and bickering. They want a coffee machine (or at least a samovar) in their writers’ room. Frank picks on Toofer for being a nerd. Etc. When one of the show’s actors, Josh (Lonny Ross), comes into the room, the writers start grilling him to do impressions. Then they show him how they can do them better. One of the most tedious parts of being a writer is that everyone thinks they know how to write. So I just love this subversion, with writers showing an actor how to act.
Jenna (Jane Krakowski), the star of The Girlie Show and Liz’s close friend, makes an impression in this episode with her obsessive vanity, though we don’t really get to know her yet. Once might wonder at this point what Liz would ever see in her as a friend.
But then we get to the real action when Liz and producer Pete (Scott Adsit) get called upstairs. They find themselves surrounded by a construction crew and face-to-face with a brand new network Vice President, Jack Donaghey (Alec Baldwin). Jack quickly fills them in on his background as a marketing whiz, sizing up Liz’s psychographics in seconds and then going on to explain the wonders of an oven he helped develop. Turns out he’s also Vice President of East Coast TV and Microwave Programming. If it sounds like it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t, not even to the characters. Liz thinks she’s dreaming.
Liz then finds herself shunted off, in a horrible borrowed suit, to lunch with a superstar actor named Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan). “Isn’t he, um, crazy?” she asks. Crazy or not, Jack thinks he’s perfect for broadening the demographic reach of The Girlie Show. We soon see for ourselves that Tracy is, in fact, a few ounces short of a forty. Liz spends the rest of the day trying to convince Tracy why joining her show would be a horrible move for him, while he and his entourage distract themselves with booze and strippers.
As much as Liz and Tracy appear to be polar opposites, Tracy tries to find common ground with her about how white men have kept women and minorities down. Any moments of vulnerability in either character, however, are quickly upended with hilarity. Learning that Pete, her longtime producer and friend has been fired from the show, Liz heads back to the studio galvanized and ready to tell Jack off in front of the whole crew. Meanwhile, the show is falling apart without her and it’s up to Liz and Tracy to save the day.
So many tropes are employed here yet the pilot jumps out as the herald of a unique show. It is filled with unexpected zingers and non-sequiturs. A show about writers could only hope to survive if it, itself, were truly well-written*. With six seasons and counting and a boatload of Emmys, it’s working. And although the cast has evolved over the years, watching the pilot proves that the show has not lost touch with its origins.
*I tried, but I simply cannot write a post about 30 Rock without defending Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which debuted the same season. The latter is often compared unfavorably to the former and Studio 60 warrants defending. The writing was brilliant. It was freaking Aaron Sorkin. The acting was amazing, too. The main criticism I hear is, “It was a show about a sketch comedy show but it wasn’t funny.” First of all, it was often hilarious. But it wasn’t a comedy. It was nothing like 30 Rock and never tried to be. It doesn’t even make sense to compare them–they are two completely different shows that had the misfortune (for one of them) of debuting at the same time.