Sep 15, 2007

30 Rock

30 Rock just pulled off a big upset by winning the Emmy for best sitcom. No matter what you think of the result, this represents a stunning improvement over the show's initial start. Let's see why.

I wrote my previous breakdown of 30 Rock after watching their first episode, a big mistake for them and for me. In the first episode, show runner Liz ran all over the city looking for movie comedy star Tracy so he could head the cast of her Saturday Night Live-like show. Sitcoms require a large number of comic oppositions, which play off each other in rapid succession and which can generate comedy for at least 100 episodes. By taking the story out of the studio arena, the 30 Rock writers not only reduced the show to one (fairly weak) comic opposition, they gave the audience the wrong impression of what a typical 30 Rock experience would entail.

Subsequent episodes became much more focused in the studio, and that allowed the writers to generate different comic oppositions between regular characters at a much faster pace. That move alone was worth plenty. But the biggest improvement came from a season-long effort to sharpen the comic differences between characters. The opposition between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin) continued to be the primary one, but it improved dramatically. The Jack character is terrific, and Baldwin plays it brilliantly. But if he has no one to work off of, this character is wasted. So the writers sharpened Liz, making her more of a "machine" comic, undercutting the over-the-top "crazies" on the show. Fey also stepped up her game noticeably as a comic actor.

Keeping the stories more within the studio arena also allowed the writers to heighten the secondary comic oppositions. For example, "child" comic Kenneth - the innocent, idealistic and totally naïve page - became a perfect foil for both Tracy and Jack. This was tremendously valuable. Those of you who wish to create sitcoms or simply write a good one, notice that every time you create a new valid comic opposition like this, you get a magnified benefit: the primary opposition doesn't have to carry the whole load, you have more available story turns and the comic density of the show increases.

Another comic opposition that improved over the course of the season was the one between Liz and Jenna (played by Jane Krakowski). The episode that featured Jenna getting in trouble talking about the war in Iraq was one of the funniest of the season and showed that she still has a lot of potential in her oppositions, especially with Jack.

Now that the writers have found their groove, look for the show to focus even more on the in-studio oppositions. 30 Rock may not be the best comedy on television - in my opinion, The Office is a notch above it - but it's one of the funniest in a long time and it's getting better.


Sitcoms don't have the stature they had ten years ago, but they are still the second biggest form in television. What's crucial to understand about a sitcom is its success doesn't come from a list of good jokes. It comes from the original set up of the show, from what makes the jokes possible.

Again, there are a large number of structural elements required to set up a sitcom successfully, with one of the most important being the oppositions within the community. In sitcoms, that opposition is comedic, and each one must be an essential comedic opposition that never disappears over the course of entire show.

By this standard, 30 Rock is in trouble. There aren't enough essential oppositions and I don't see how the ones they do have are going to last. The first opposition is between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Tracy (played by Tracy Morgan). This has an obvious visual opposition, but not a comedic one. Liz occasionally cracks wise, but as a character she is not funny. She is not pompous, nor does she go to the other extreme of deadpan (like a Bill Murray, for example) needed to make other characters funny. Tracy is mildly over-the-top, but in a limited, one-note way.

The one comedic opposition that does work, between Liz and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin), will be hard to sustain. Jack is the pompous corporate bastard who is both a narcissist and a creative idiot. Even the tame Liz will be able to cut him down to size, only to see him re-inflate within seconds. But how often can this corporate honcho appear on the set and create havoc?

The real ongoing comedic oppositions on a show about Saturday Night Live should be within the cast and crew. But so far these characters, like the cat wrangler and the pretty, do-nothing receptionist, are defined by a single comic note. They may have an occasional funny line but they are not comic pillars. They do not stand in essential comic opposition with any other fundamental comic character.

30 Rock does have two real strengths: a number of funny lines and no laugh track. But neither of these can overcome the weakness of bad comic opposition. I'll keep watching, for a while at least, and hope they prove me wrong.

If you are interested in writing sitcoms, or creating a successful one, you'll find all the techniques in the Sitcom Writing Class and the Sitcom Blockbuster add-on.

Sep 1, 2007

Mad Men

Mad Men
is one of the best-written and most ambitious TV shows in some time. It is worth close study, not just for learning how to create a well-structured show but also how to write one that is truly original and potentially groundbreaking.

Story world, or arena, is one of the key structural elements in any TV drama (see the TV Drama Class for how to create this element, as well as the other essential structural elements of a successful show). It is where the story takes place and it usually exists within some specific arena that not only delineates a recognizable unit but also has a set of rules, activities and values that defines the characters.

One of the strengths of Mad Men is its story world. Instead of the usual arena of cops, lawyers, or doctors, Mad Men takes us into a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960. Besides being totally unique in TV, this story world is extremely detailed. And the detailing isn’t simply a matter of the set design, which is fabulous. It is written into every episode. The writers weave all manner of cultural icons of the late 50s-early 60s, including TV shows, ads, and fashion.

This has two great advantages. One is the pleasure of recognition. If you were a kid at that time, as I was, the show is a virtual time machine. And even if you weren’t, the authenticity and texture immerse you in the world and make you feel that “You are there!”

The other great advantage is that this past world tricks the audience into believing that this is how it really was back then. The first thing we notice when we see all of these details is how much the world has changed. Everybody smoked back then. The men were in charge and the women were all secretaries and housewives. That sets up the kicker. By first thinking how much we’ve changed, we then realize, with even more impact, all the ways we haven’t. This story, set in 1960, is really about today, or more exactly, the ways that human nature only puts on a new skin and the same fundamental challenges of creating a meaningful life must be faced by each of us, every moment of every day.

Another structural element that immediately jumps out at you if you want to create a TV show or write for one is the desire line. In Mad Men the desire that structures each episode is fairly nebulous, and that’s probably going to cut into the show’s popularity (I hope I’m wrong on this one). Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.

So while the desire line on this show may be more nebulous, it is far closer to what most Americans do in their daily lives. These Mad Men are in the business of selling, which, as Arthur Miller pointed out long ago, is the archetypal American action. But they aren’t selling a particular product. They’re selling desire, some image of the good life that, because it is a fabricated ideal, is always just out of reach.

Writer Matthew Weiner’s brilliant conception for this show is to connect the selling of desire to America to the personal and work lives of the ad men themselves. The ad men want the image of the good life in America that they are selling to be true, even if they intellectually make fun of the poor suckers out there who buy it. Main character Don Draper is handsome and talented, with a beautiful wife and two cute little kids. But he has some secrets he’s keeping – like a mistress in the city – and he feels a terrible void he has no idea how to shake. Draper is a master at manipulating desire and creating facades, so when he tries to live the promise for real, the “good life” falls apart in his hands.

We are in Far from Heaven and American Beauty territory here. And the second episode even had Draper give his own version of the Existentialist credo of Sartre and Camus that was seeping into pop culture during the late 50s (how’s that for a sweet detail on a TV show?). We’ll have to see whether Mad Men can extend beyond a few episodes without imploding. Besides the lack of a clean desire line, the subject of hollow suburban existence will make it extremely difficult for the writers to develop the show over the long term without beating a spiritually dead horse. In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and enjoy some great dramatic writing, and nowadays TV is the only place you’ll find it.