It is the actors or the script? It’s the eternal question that comes up when deciding whom to credit or blame for a TV series, play or movie, and while each is obviously a collaborative medium, it’s an interesting game to determine whether a bad script can defeat good actors, or vice versa, or vice versa both ways in reverse.
For the two NBC sitcoms debuting tonight, it’s the script. In Twenty Good Years, at 8:30 p.m. E.T., John (John Lithgow), a divorced surgeon forced into retirement, decides to convince his timid, nerdy friend Jeffrey (Jeffrey Tambor) to throw caution to the wind and spend the rest of their lives having adventures, living each day as their last. If the show were the gay senior-citizen romance my brief description makes it sound like, Twenty might be worth a curious watch, but, no, this is the same kind of odd-couple pairing that TV has been trying to sell for decades, and, like most every odd-couple concept after the actual Odd Couple, the premise has not even Twenty Good Minutes of humor in it. Lithgow, who delightfully chewed up the set of Third Rock from the Sun, and Tambor, who was acutely funny in The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development, seem less defeated by this lame show than imprisoned by it; you’ll want to smash your picture tube to try to free them.
30 Rock (which I reviewed at more length here), which kicks off the night at 8 p.m. E.T., has gotten special praise for Alec Baldwin’s scene-stealing as Jack Donaghy, a General Electric executive who starts meddling in a sketch comedy show run by Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). And Tracy Morgan deserves more praise than he’s gotten for playing Tracy Jordan, the mentally unstable comedy star Jack foists on Liz to shake up her show. Tracy may be a one-note character, but Morgan plays out that one note like an Ornette Coleman solo, simultaneously getting at Jordan’s craziness and his canniness. In his first meeting with Lemon, he rants about an Us Weekly article that claims he’s on drugs. "That’s racist!" he says with genuine indignation. "I’m straight-up mentally ill!"
Yet the big accomplishment of 30 Rock is that Tina Fey, scriptwriter, makes the show work despite the fact that her star, Tina Fey, actor, cannot really act. Fey is often called the thinking man’s sex symbol, but maybe the better description would be that she’s a better-looking Woody Allen. Despite her limited range (exasperation, nervousness, sardonicism), she knows how to write for herself, and she has enough presence and persona to let her being stand in for her acting: as with Allen, the glasses and the jaded-New-Yorker bearing do 90% of the lifting.
As I’ve said before, 30 Rock is half as stuffy and didactic as its subjectmate Studio 60, twice as astute about the real problems of TV (corporate interference and general knuckleheadedness) and ten times as funny. It owes a lot to producer Tina Fey’s choosing the right actors. But it owes even more to actor Tina Fey’s ending up with the right writer.