The accused: 30 Rock, “The One With The Cast of Night Court” (Season 3, Episode 3)
The crime: Embodying the big dangers with high-profile guest casting
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Hello, all! Welcome back to #TVFail. I have another hopefully-fun point of discussion for you folks today. From a few random conversations on Twitter, there might be a little resistance to my designation of this episode of 30 Rock as a failure, so I hope there is some discussion to come. Feel free to fire away in the comments.
Stunt casting is a fundamental part of the television industry. Stunt casting is a gimmick, a tactic that producers, studios and networks hope will help draw you into a series you’ve never watched before or back into something that you stopped caring about a few seasons ago. Along with the old controversial hot-button story tactic, stunt casting is right there on the front page of the network audience-baiting playbook. Of course, stunt casting is not a new or novel process and it certainly isn’t necessarily bad. If Paul Rudd guesting on a few episodes of Parks and Recreation pulls in a few more eyes (which apparently, it kind of did) and the series does something fun with him, I’m all for it.
But that last point I made, that’s what is most important in regard to stunt casting. Paul Rudd’s guest turn on Parks and Recreation works because the he’s a solid fit for the character, he’s a game performer and yet, there’s no real strain there. If Michael Schur and Greg Daniels couldn’t have gotten Rudd (say, the schedules didn’t work out) and they gave the job to Will Ferrell, well, that would have been terrible. And honestly, you’re now picturing Will Ferrell in that role and beating your head against the wall because you know that NBC probably could have – and would have – pushed that for that.
My problem isn’t with stunt casting as practice, but I do have an issue with contemporary network television, particularly in comedy, having an overreliance on the process. It’s a crutch. And when there doesn’t seem to be much of a diegetic reason for the character the famous guest is playing to exist, then my patience doesn’t hold up too long. I’m fully aware of the realities of the contemporary television business. I understand that certain programs could use a jolt of A- or high B-list energy to bring in some new viewers. But when the guest spot seems more manufactured for business reasons and it appears like the writing staff didn’t have much of an idea what to do with that person, my mind no longer cares about the realities of the business. I’m just mad that the episode I am watching sucks. So when NBC asked Will Ferrell to come on The Office last season, everyone quickly realized, after about six minutes of screen-time, that the network hoped Ferrell’s star power would keep viewers from running away once Steve Carell. Deangelo Vickers was legitimately one of the worst characters on all of television last year. His diegetic existence was not justified.
What is really curious to me is the proliferation of high-profile guest stars on comedies in particular. As I said, stunt casting isn’t new (The Love Boat practically existed to serve big guest star ends), but as with so many things, it sure feels like we can trace back our contemporary glut of major sitcom guest stars to NBC. Friends embedded famous guest stars into its narrative from very early on and by the end of the run, it was easier to talk about the big film players who hadn’t been on Friends than it was to discuss those that had. Will & Grace took a very similar approach during its time on the airwaves as well.
Oddly, neither of those series especially needed the slew of high-profile guest stars they used, considering both were substantial hits for basically the entirety of their respective runs. However, the process of using famous guest became so ingrained into the fabrics of these series that it sort of carried over to the entire NBC comedy brand, where I would argue that no network has used the guest stars as much over the last decade or so. CBS doesn’t need major guest stars (though they don’t completely shy away from them, obviously) and ABC is just now starting to keep quality comedies on the air (and Modern Family has used a handful of them already as well).
NBC is the spot for big name performers to guest on sitcoms. Unfortunately, whereas stunt casting worked as like the icing on the cake for the success of Friends and Will & Grace, NBC continues to think that this particular approach to casting is the direct path to success. They tried to prop up Scrubs with big guests. Fans of The Office are probably lucky Steve Carell became a star between seasons one and two or it would have been similarly full of major players before recently. I have to imagine that Jack Black and Owen Wilson were very warmly received, if not suggested for that season one episode of Community.
And in my opinion, nowhere has stunt casting been more obnoxious than on 30 Rock. Don’t get me wrong, the series’ premise immediately opens it up to a cavalcade of guest stars (who could even play themselves by the way), and there have been a great of guests that have worked quite well within the zany world of TGS and the barely-fictional representation of Rock Center. But the series’ third season became this weird perfect storm for major guest stars and I don’t think that it is any surprise that season three was the series’ creative low point.
NBC got a little lucky in 2008. The network planned a few Saturday Night Live Thursday specials to keep tabs on the heated presidential election and thankfully(?), Sarah Palin became the Republican nominee for Vice President. You know the rest: Tina Fey appeared on SNL and delivered a tremendous impression of Palin, and cue popular culture zeitgeist explosion. Tina Fey and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was everywhere and all of it served as accidental backdoor promotion for the slightly-delayed upcoming third season of the two-time Emmy winner for Outstanding Comedy Series, 30 Rock.
So Tina Fey was hotter than ever and 30 Rock was coming off an unbelievable but strike-shortened second season. The low-rated series was primed to gain some new viewers. However, the series already had many third season episodes in the can before all the Fey/Palin hoopla and those early episodes suggested that NBC had very little faith in its then-best comedy. The first four episodes of 30 Rock season three all had substantial guest stars: Megan Mullally*, Oprah, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Martin. We’ll never know if Tina Fey specifically wanted all these individuals, if NBC strongly suggested them or some combination of both, but we can see that somewhere along the line, it was decided big-named guest stars could get people to watch 30 Rock.
*In 2012, having Megan Mullally guest star on your sitcom isn’t a big move. In fact, if she doesn’t guest on your sitcom, you’re doing it wrong. But in 2008, she was still just a few years removed from Will & Grace and it was therefore a bit more impactful.
In the short-term, you could say that the decision paid off. The ratings for the season premiere were dramatically higher than those for any episode in season two. Across the board, 30 Rock’s third season is the highest-rated in the series’ history. You could give most of the credit to Tina Fey’s higher profile, to Sarah Palin, to the Emmy wins or to the guest stars, but the point is that the series reached its popular culture apex (quantitatively, anyway) in the fall of 2008.
Unfortunately, that apex also happened to coincide with the series’ creative nadir. “The One With The Cast of Night Court” is a great (read: miserable) representative of what happens when stunt guest casting goes awry. Will Ferrell’s time on The Office is probably still worse (if only because it lasted so much longer), but Jennifer Aniston’s appearance as Claire Harper is the first thing that pops into my head when I think of bad, shoehorned-in famous guest stars. The episode features the perfect combination of 30 Rock problems: Miscast guest stars and a focus on Jack’s love life.
I don’t want to turn this into a referendum on Aniston’s acting abilities or her star image because I think Aniston can be very effective in the right role and generally, I like her quite a bit. I totally understand why she’s America’s sweetheart. But Claire Harper is not the kind of role for her. This was clearly an attempt to step outside the Rachel Green rom-com box and I can appreciate that. But again, Claire Harper is not a good role for her.
One of the primary problems with the character and her placement within this episode is how she relates to Jack and Liz. Sitting aside the stale nature of the “old friend” conceit, there’s a weird energy to Aniston’s performance, which, I would argue, stems from her straining attempts to move away from Rachel Green, that doesn’t fit right with either Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon or Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. 30 Rock is a zany, barely-real comedy most of the time, but there’s an underlying intelligence and warmth to Liz and Jack’s patter. Part of Claire’s intrigue is that she purposefully disrupts Jack’s control and walks over Liz, but that over-the-top energy simply doesn’t play well, even for half of a 21-minut episode.
Ultimately, Aniston’s presence on this episode of 30 Rock is just a mess. It’s hard not to feel like that Jeff Zucker came to Tina Fey, said “You’ve got Aniston” and the writing staff went with the easiest characterization. Then, compounded with Aniston’s tepid performance and well, sigh. Of course, she was nominated for an Emmy for this! Never change, Academy.
And as I suggested earlier, I think 30 Rock gets into trouble when it focuses so tightly on the love lives of either of its lead characters. Seasons three and four did this a whole bunch – many of which were portrayed by similarly high-profile performers – and again, it’s therefore probably no surprise that those seasons struggled to find footing with the critics who loved it in the first two seasons.
Aniston’s bad spot on 30 Rock highlights the tight-rope comedies need to walk with their guest stars. I guess 30 Rock deserves some props for not simply letting famous people come on and play themselves or character they’re very comfortable with, but when the guests miss, it’s kind of miserable. Aniston isn’t alone. Salma Hayek and Julianne Moore had their struggles at times as well as Jack love interests and I’m still not really sure how I feel about that one creepy time James Franco was on the series.
What’s especially odd is that within the exact same episode, 30 Rock gets something so weird so right. The Night Court reunion isn’t full of high-profile guests, but those actors (in those roles) evoke a lot of meaning for a whole lot of people. Also, like Aniston, the cast of Night Court has a direct connection to NBC and their history, something that 30 Rock uses as a device very often. I’m not sure if the Night Court plotline worked much better than Aniston’s guest spot simply because the guest was asked to basically act like themselves/their characters or because their diminished profile makes it a little harder to read so much into their performance choices. Perhaps the lack of a clear answer* proves how random guest casting, especially when big names are involved, can be.
*The one probable clear answer: Aniston was just not good.