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30 Rock's reunion special to promote NBC Universal couldn't overcome the stink of it all

  • "Hoping we’re either as dumb as we look or not as smart as we seem, NBCUniversal tried to pawn off an hour-long advertising selfie disguised as synergized entertainment on its prime time network Thursday night — a pitch for a (so far hypothetical) 2020-21 TV season, disguised as a 30 Rock reunion," says Hank Stuever of 30 Rock: A One Time Special. "Sentient viewers are so inured to advertising that it apparently only works now if you pretend to be cynical about the entire industry — an inside joke about an inside joke, in which the joke was really on anyone hoping for a satisfying hour with our old friends who used to produce and star in TGS, the comedy sketch show at the center of 30 Rock, which, you’ll recall, was itself already a spoof of working at NBC in an environment like Saturday Night Live.” But Stuever adds: "30 Rock’s sardonic skills in the meta department couldn’t overcome the corporate stink of it all, even with such winking-at-the-camera lines as Baldwin saying, 'Thank God advertisers are some of the smartest and most physically attractive people this industry has ever seen.' Wash your hands all you want (and wash them you should!), it just won’t come off...The existential crisis rages on from there: What did we just watch? What is television? What isn’t? And most of all: If NBCUniversal achieves perfect viewer/advertiser singularity, what are they going to do us next?"


    • Getting Tina Fey to shill for you with utter abandon also feels like it’s at odds with the spirit of 30 Rock: "With its previous product placement—not all of which was as successful as the Snapple and Verizon bits—30 Rock was so blatantly insincere that it still came across as authentic," says Willa Paskin. "There was something brilliantly adolescent (or is this where I should invoke Gen X?) about its approach: It found a loophole even while complying with the letter of the law, doing what the corporate overlords asked with so much enthusiasm that advertisers couldn’t really take issue with it, but no one watching could take it seriously. The special found a hint of this in Alec Baldwin’s early line readings, but it faded fast. Where there had once been toothless rebellion, now there was eager compliance—even if the show had trained me to see insincerity floating in the air, like the afterimage from decade-old flash." Paskin adds that "in some ways the most modern of TV shows—funny and fleet and lightning fast—is already an artifact of a much less earnest time, when puncturing all sides wasn’t its own kind of opinion (also a time when you could have your sheet cake and eat it, without being accused of myopic white feminism). With the special, 30 Rock finally committed to something other than joke, and that something was its corporate overlord. A pretty dark joke indeed."
    • It seems Tina Fey and her writers weren't given nearly as much latitude for self-referential corporate mockery: "The meta jabs were far outnumbered by clumsy, box-ticking setups for one of NBCU's many corporate arms," says Kristen Baldwin, adding that "this wasn't an episode of 30 Rock, or even an episode of anything. It was a 60-minute sales pitch lumbering around inside the husk of an Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning sitcom. Toward the end of the hour, the TGS gang Zoom-bombs Kenneth's presentation to advertisers, and he is livid."
    • 30 Rock reunion was funny, even as a blatant commercial: "In between the new 30 Rock material peddling NBCUniversal’s wares, there were back-to-back commercials for NBCUniversal properties, sneak peeks for upcoming originals and somber montages about the power of NBC’s commitment to news, the Olympics and Peacock #content (the vast majority of which pulls from the history of NBC for its content library rather than points toward its future as a possible originals player.)," says Willa Paskin. 'If you’ve ever attended an upfront presentation, in which networks make their splashiest pitches for advertisers by putting forward their most impressive slate of talent, it would have felt very familiar. If you’re a 30 Rock fan who tuned in to see a 30 Rock reunion special, it would have felt both very strange and…well, kind of familiar."
    • 30 Rock reunion was one long lame, sorta funny, occasionally brilliant Peacock ad: "It’s a strange thing to judge," says Kevin Fallon. "It’s utterly bizarre as primetime television; there’s a reason Upfronts aren’t typically broadcast like this. But, in the grand scheme of Upfronts, it was kind of fantastic. Whoo-ee have there been cringey attempts at entertainment at these things. But here was a 30 Rock reunion! With the whole cast! And crackling 30 Rock jokes! It might be the best Upfronts content there’s ever been. So why not air it on television? Sure it might play as nonsensical to some and excruciatingly boring to many. But if you found out that there was a scripted 30 Rock reunion but it only played to a roomful of advertisers and media folk, wouldn’t you be annoyed? Especially if you were a fan of the show, wouldn’t you want to find a way to watch it? The problem here is that no matter how many times they specified that this was part of the company’s Upfronts, by airing on primetime it was still somehow missing that context."

    TOPICS: 30 Rock, NBC, Peacock, Tina Fey, Coronavirus, Marketing, NBC Universal