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30 Rock Rural Juror.png

TV is in Its Accidental 30 Rock Era

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | April 27, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | April 27, 2022 |

30 Rock Rural Juror.png

I think it was Crime Scene Kitchen that tipped me off to the trend. This, uh, unique cooking show premiered on Fox last May, with Joel McHale on hosting duties. The basic concept was that a group of bakers would enter a wrecked kitchen set and try to identify the desserts that had been prepared there using the crumbs, clues, and general chaos left behind. Discovering that this show was a real piece of primetime programming and not a parody of modern network desperation made me feel weirdly exhausted, then left me wondering why Jenna Maroney wasn’t hosting it. I felt this sensation multiple times over the past year, from Is It Cake? to F-Boy Island to everything that went down on Quibi. Could it be that television has fully entered the era of Accidental 30 Rock?

Tina Fey’s comedy 30 Rock provided one of the most hilariously scathing portrayals of corporate ignorance through its fourth wall breaking, subtle-as-a-brick take on the follies of monopolized media. Set at the eponymous 30 Rockefeller Plaza and centered on the production of a sketch show that was SNL with less laughs, the series got some of its most memorable laughs from mocking the very network it was broadcast on: NBC. The labyrinthine multi-level structure of General Electric, then its parent company (NBC now falls under the mighty umbrella of Comcast), positioned the network as a pathetically minor player in the grand scheme of CEO evildoings. Poking fun at NBC’s actual ratings issues, 30 Rock was flooded with one-off jokes and farcical asides about the increasingly desperate attempts to fill the channel with easily consumed entertainment that the mythic prime demographics would eat up with a spoon. The result was a near-surreal mishmash of rejects (‘it must be cricket night in America!’), spot-on parodies of well-worn genre tropes (‘Sports Shout’, ‘Queen of Jordan’), and concepts that seem doomed to cancellation after less than one episode.

Fey and company had an inside view on the fickle business of television but I’m not sure even they knew how distressingly on the money they would end up being. Browsing the oversaturated landscape if modern programming is a surreal and exhausting pursuit. It feels especially relevant following the news of Netflix’s recent subscriber haemorrhage and creative troubles. There’s never been this mythic era of TV not in some way dogged by network panic or bad ideas but nowadays things just seem that much messier.

It’s partly because we’ve been so spoiled over the past 25 years or so by the prestige arc of the medium. TV is now an artform, the kind of visual splendor that rivals and often surpasses that of film, which has been the undisputed king of culture for a century. When you have the option to make the next Deadwood or The Americans, it feels like a wasted opportunity to pour those finances into yet another reality show full of awful people pretending to fall in love. Of course, it’s seldom that simple. After all, no Emmy bait drama of the 2010s ever really pulled in the same kind of ratings as The Big Bang Theory, aside from Game of Thrones. Popularity does not equal artistic merit, such is the inevitable curse of all creators.

But we’ve also been spoiled more literally. There’s just so much damn TV that it’s literally impossible to keep up with it all. I cover pop culture for a living and it makes me truly anxious to try and follow, at the very least, the most-buzzed stuff, a concept that is ever-more fleeting for even the biggest hits. This glut, spread across hundreds of platforms and with a greater international reach than ever, means that the days of mega-ratings smashes are long gone. Yet the networks and streaming services, always several years behind the times, seem determined to chase that which no longer exists. The result is a smorgasbord of barrel-scraping that would make even Jack Donaghy squirm.

In one episode, 30 Rock introduced SeinfeldVision, a transparently pathetic way for NBC to use the nostalgic thrall of one of his biggest sitcoms for ratings gold. Essentially, Jack demanded that the network’s tech guys find a way to digitize old Jerry Seinfeld footage so that it can be clumsily inserted into every show or scenario imaginable.

I think of this scene a lot these days, especially as we see various beloved shows be rebooted before their time or attempt more ‘progressive’ narratives to try and retroactively fix aspects of the original material that were criticized for various reasons. And Just Like That…, the new sequel series to Sex and the City, was so desperate to mend its more regressive elements that it torpedoed its initial charm and radical punch for parodic notions of ‘wokeness.’ Sometimes, just reuniting an IP’s leads for a cash-in special is enough, although I’m sure NBC would CGI Rachel Green into the latest episode of American Ninja Warrior if they could.

It’s been fascinating to see how Netflix in particular is falling into the Accidental 30 Rock trap. The mammoth streaming service was supposed to change the game, to be the subversive force that didn’t play by traditional TV’s rules. It took them only a few years to do the exact same nonsense that network broadcasting does. Their reality slate, from Is it Cake? to The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On, reeks of the kind of decision making made by harried executives on a tight budget desperate to fill out the schedule. The supposed benefit of Peak TV is the freedom to not have to appeal to every single demographic at once, but I can’t help but wonder who any of these series are supposed to be for. What audience did Netflix have in mind as being so dedicated to Is it Cake? that they’ll watch all 320 minutes of it?

Algorithms don’t dictate all of TV but that mindset feels cruelly inescapable today. A system where the goalposts are endlessly moving and flash-in-the-pan gimmicks matter more than long-term audience commitment will inevitably lead to messier and more inconsequential entertainment. Netflix wonders why it’s shedding so many subscribers yet its entire business model relies on rejecting the basic notions of why people engage with art in the first place. One of the reasons I struggle with the streaming market is because I hate how much it feels like a race. It’s too much pressure to commit to 13 hours of something in one day because you’re keenly aware that those are the numbers the platform cares about the most. They don’t want you to slowly and organically find your way to your new favorite series. Imagine if Abbott Elementary hadn’t been given the room to build its now major network audience, or if HBO Max decided that Our Flag Means Death was a write-off because it didn’t gain an instant fandom. Hell, we don’t need to imagine this: just look at how swiftly Netflix now yields the cancellation hammer. The promise of varied programming that does what the old guard never allowed probably never truly existed but it certainly isn’t here now. The old cable model is back and with it comes the gimmickry. Maybe you’ll get a Bridgerton or Hacks now or then but they’ll be the gemstone surrounded by dozens of Sexy Beasts and F-Boy Island spin-offs, and several Ryan Reynolds movies I’m still not convinced actually exist.

I sound more cynical here than probably necessary, I know. It’s not like we’re short of great shows to watch if we want to look for them. The issue is less about that than whether the big heavies distributing them care to invest resources into them when their priorities have narrowed so thoroughly. Netflix’s bloated budget seems to be haphazardly distributed at best. The objective seems to be one of incuriosity, less concerned with audiences’ tastes than an adherence to an almighty data calculation with zero verification. The bottom seems doomed to fall out of the streaming boom, and we haven’t even touched upon the issues of fair pay and workplace safety that seem to plague many of these companies.

Netflix is continuing to dump tens of millions of dollars into flash-in-the-pan movies while pumping out about 30 new things a month, while network and cable television seem increasingly reliant on tighter budgets and strained novelties. Netflix animation is firing executives and staff, and canceling series before they go into production, while Amazon is spending half a billion dollars on a Lord of the Rings series. Your favorite shows get canceled before they find their footing but there’s always another stunt on the horizon. If it all ends with someone actually commissioning Black Frasier and Hunchbacks, at least it won’t be a surprise.