The return of 30 Rock did not strike me as one of the better episodes — it certainly wasn’t bad, but I’m not a big fan of “Liz is a megalomaniac” episodes, and the vending-machine subplot was already done on The Simpsons (“snack-related mishap!”). But there will be some great episodes later this season, I’m sure, and the post-strike premiere did provide an interesting look at the ambiguity with which the world of scripted TV views the world of reality TV.
On the one hand, in the scripted TV universe, reality TV is portrayed as evil. Pure and simple. Scripted TV characters either humiliate themselves by going on reality TV, or they watch shows that are only slightly exaggerated versions of actual network reality fare, like “MILF Island.” It’s kind of astonishing that networks don’t seem to mind their writers expressing open hatred of another type of show on the same network.
But on the other hand, anyone with an ability to be self-critical — and Tina Fey has that ability, almost to a fault — has to acknowledge that there are things reality television has that scripted televsion often lacks. The reason reality TV became so big isn’t just that networks were trying to make cheaper shows; it’s that many viewers become emotionally involved in reality shows in a way that scripted television didn’t allow. Partly because these are real people (sort of) but partly because the situations and settings on reality TV were so basic, even primal, at a time when scripted TV had gotten out of hand with sets and location shooting and multiple scenes and complicated subplots. The conventions of reality TV came along to expose how worn-out the contrivances of scripted television had become. And so last night’s 30 Rock, where the scripted TV show follows the pattern of a reality TV show and mimics the confined setting, in-fighing and backstabbing that reality television provides, sort of had to reluctantly acknowledge that even though reality may be “lowest common denominator,” it’s kind of on to something.