And then there’s 30 Rock. Like its late cousin, Arrested Development, 30 Rock is that unsettling thing, a critic’s darling, a minority taste with minority ratings. (When it first won an Emmy, Tina Fey, the show’s creator, executive producer, and lead actress, thanked the sitcom’s “dozens and dozens of viewers.”)
30 Rock is the best show on network television. And half the pleasure of the series is its dazzling self-referentiality, the way it acts as an allegory for what it’s like to make TV right now. Fey—herself the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live—plays Liz Lemon, the showrunner of The Girlie Show, a second-string comedy-sketch series with middling ratings, not unlike Mad TV. Lemon considers herself an artist (or at least a “creative”), but she also wants her show to be a hit. In the first episode, she reluctantly accepts a new star (a popular, erratic black comedian named Tracy Jordan, played by erratic black comedian Tracy Morgan) and a new title, TGS With Tracy Jordan. She also meets her new boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), GE’s vice-president of East Coast television and microwave-oven programming.
At its heart, the sitcom is a platonic romance between these two workaholics, the nerdy purist writer and the suit who pushes her to see the big picture. What makes the show funny, and timely, and terrifying, is that on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon always loses.
When I talk to television showrunners, everyone mentions 30 Rock. After all, it has the best jokes on television about product integration. In the show’s fifth episode, Donaghy talks with Lemon about integrating brands. “I’m sorry, you’re saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?” Liz asks.
JACK: Look, I know how this sounds.
LIZ: No, come on, Jack. We’re not doing that. We’re not compromising the integrity of the show to sell—
PETE: Wow. This is Diet Snapple?
LIZ: I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?
The scene was paid for by Snapple. After it ended, there was a commercial for Snapple.
“Some of the cast started saying, ‘Are we doing a commercial or are we filming 30 Rock? ”
Tom Fontana is one among many TV writers who adored that scene. The creator of unorthodox series like Oz and Homicide, Fontana has never been pushed to integrate brands, but he says he would be open to it. His defense boils down to three points: verisimilitude, nostalgia, and necessity. A character who orders Wild Turkey is different from one who orders Basil Hayden’s. If you can monetize that realism, why not?
The distinction, he tells me, is not whether you do it but whether you do it well. “Is there finesse?” he asks. He also points out that 30 Rock’s ironic jokes aren’t really so modern; in fact, he just saw an episode of the Jack Benny Show that did something similar. His assistant sends over the disc.
“My sponsor called me,” says Benny, swaying before the curtain. “And my sponsor—he’s an awfully nice fella—he told me that he had a feeling—you know, he likes my show, he likes my TV show very, very much. But he had a feeling that I wasn’t doing the integrated commercials … And after all, my sponsor is paying the bills, you see, and he has the privilege of making suggestions.”
Benny pauses thoughtfully. “Of course, I don’t have to take the suggestions. I have the privilege of quitting.” Split-second beat. “But I don’t want to abuse the privilege, so … ”
Other writers share Fontana’s nostalgia. This is merely the return to an old model, they reassure me; it’s the very model you can see forming historically on Mad Men (another series that, like 30 Rock, both references product integration and weaves real brands into the plot, such as Heineken, one of the show’s sponsors). The key is to do it in ways that don’t harm the story, that even improve it—then take the money and use it well. “Better casting,” Chris Dingess, a writer for Reaper, effuses. “Sets that don’t look like sets!”
Yet at times ambivalence does creep in. When J. J. Abrams created Felicity, product placement wasn’t an issue. He fought for realism as the network erased brands, a process called “Greeking.” By the time of Alias’ third season, in 2003, the world had changed. Abrams cut a deal with Ford. He didn’t mind using the car, but Ford insisted the characters shout, “Quick, to the F-150!” Abrams cringes at the memory and says he hopes to avoid such deals in the future.
But others see such ambivalence as a luxury. Joe Davola, an executive producer of One Tree Hill, calls from his cell as he’s whizzing in his car through Los Angeles. He’s the creative partner of Mark Schwahn, the showrunner of One Tree Hill. Davola tells me he and Schwahn eagerly sought sponsors, including Sunkist. The Gatorade logo is on “the towels, the cups, the cooler” for the series’ fictional basketball team. Sunkist sponsored the tour of a musician character—and when the actor went on an actual tour, it was also sponsored by Sunkist. Another character sold her clothing line to Macy’s. (One Tree Hill’s adolescents have conveniently grown up to be entrepreneurs, helming fashion lines and music labels.)