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sitcom smackdown

The Best Sitcom of the Past 30 Years, Round One: Sex and the City vs. 30 Rock

Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today's battle: "This American Life" contributor Starlee Kine decides between two very different tales of Manhattan women: Sex and the City and 30 Rock. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket, which has already veered from our critics' choices. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.

When asked to pick a first-round match-up to decide in the Sitcom Smackdown, I was drawn to 30 Rock versus Sex and the City because I didn’t immediately know which show I’d be choosing as the winner. I love them both, but for very different reasons. 30 Rock is grounded in ensemble-based sketch comedy, and the joke took precedence over all. Sex and the City is episodic, riding a hazier line between drama and comedy. I would quickly discover that these dissimilarities would make the exercise of comparing and judging delightful television incredibly stressful. Any enjoyment I got from watching one show felt like a betrayal of the other.

No show can top 30 Rock when it comes to jokes, both in quality and quantity. For all its wackiness, each episode was an exercise in efficiency. How many laughs can you squeeze out of a single comedic premise? It’s not enough that a Page-Off is declared between NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) and his nemesis — there also has to be a lightning-quick shot of the background actors whispering, “Not a Page-Off! Not a Page-Off!” The show not only piles joke upon joke upon joke — more than seem possible to fit into 22 minutes — but nearly each one is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard in your life. I imagine show creator and star Tina Fey and her staff sitting around the writers' room with tiny chisels instead of pens, chipping away at each joke until it became the perfect combination of words, timing, and concept.

During the run-up to the show’s recent finale there was a lot of online ranking of 30 Rock lines. Which makes sense: There’s a spirit of collect and trade when it comes to watching this show; it feels reckless to release so much great humor into the world without preserving it. My favorite line was delivered by NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) to Liz Lemon (Fey) in the second season. Liz hires her TV-writing idol, Rosemary Howard (played by Carrie Fisher), to guest-write on the show; Jack hates her political pitches and orders her fired, Liz refuses, he fires them both, and Liz follows Rosemary to her filthy, toiletless apartment in a sketchy corner of New York (“Don’t worry, he’s not a cop,” Rosemary assures Liz as a guy runs by with a gun) and she gets a disturbing look into the future of a proud sketch writer. When she returns to NBC to get her job back and tell Jack the horrible things she saw, he hands her a glass of wine and matter-of-factly tells her, “Never go with a hippie to a second location” — then the show quickly scooted onto the next joke while I laid in my bed, laptop on chest, reeling from the cleverness. The best 30 Rock jokes don’t make me laugh so much as experience a panicky sort of joy. They can make me feel like I am wasting language by saying sentences any other way.

Baldwin plays Jack with such coy, natural confidence (“I do look like the Arrow shirt man, I did lace up my skates professionally, and I did do a fabulous job of finishing my muffin”) that the casting feels inevitable. Even if you went back in a time machine, you could no more prevent him from landing the part than you could (according to the Twilight Zone) stop Lincoln from getting assassinated. And it is Jack’s friendship with Liz — their balance of affection and comedy — that provides the show its version of heart. Despite near-constant jabs about her appearance, lack of dating prospects, and liberal political leanings, he clearly adores her:

Liz: I thought you said we were friends.

Jack: I said we were friendly.

Liz: Well, I don’t like you anymore.

Jack: I don’t believe you. (beat) Go easy on the pizza.

There was was a big ensemble beyond Fey and Baldwin — Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer chief among them. Each was great at playing his or her broadly drawn character, and they served as perfect comic foils for Liz. The more order she sought, the more chaos they provided. However, besides Jack, none of the other characters was ever given the opportunity to establish a meaningful, non-jokey bond with Liz. As a result, 30 Rock could sometimes feel like two separate sitcoms: The one about the making of a network sketch comedy show and the one about a professional single woman navigating her way through one disastrous relationship after another. The former played to Fey’s strengths as an SNL grad and veteran improviser; the latter seemed like a show she felt she had to do.

Perhaps that need for the “single woman” aspect came from the sitcom maxim that you need emotion — a beating heart — for a comedy to work. Or perhaps it was a sense-memory echoing of its Manhattan precursor, Sex and the City — or a willful parody of it. Also set in New York (but you knew that), SATC centers on lifestyle columnist Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker and based on real New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell) and her three closest friends: Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Each woman represents a different archetype (roughly, in order: edgy free spirit, pragmatist, hopeless romantic, and promiscuous party hopper), which is one of the reasons I try to avoid having conversations about SATC with people who have never seen it. It’s hard to convince them that the characters were more than stereotypes. (Just to be clear: We are only talking about TV here; the SATC movies are to be stricken from the record. I would unfilm them if that were possible.) Considered groundbreaking when it first aired, SATC is now often reduced to a guilty pleasure, a show that comes with clauses. Worse, admitting you like it can feel akin to saying you’re not a modern woman. This struggle to reconcile whether SATC is good or bad for us recently played out within the television universe, on SATC’s own network, no less. In the pilot episode of Girls, sheltered Shoshanna asks her worldly cousin Jessa which SATC character she is. Jessa looks at her like she’s mad. Maybe this is the only way Girls is able to acknowledge the obvious debt it owes to SATC, by gently taking it down a notch. Maybe this is just the nature of the predecessor/successor dynamic. But it’s hard to imagine, say, 30 Rock (or any show) treating The Mary Tyler Moore Show the same way.

The show begins when Samantha is 40 and the other three are in their mid-thirties, but it’s not a show about women who are aging. It’s the most dedicated depiction of choosing to make your friends your family that I’ve ever seen. So much so that, with the exception of an awkward episode early on where Miranda has to deal with her mother’s off-camera death, biological family simply is not a factor in the main characters’ lives. You never meet anyone’s parents. The concept of siblings doesn’t seem to exist; even the men they marry are only children, as is Miranda’s son. You also never learn how the four friends first met, or much about their former lives at all, really. It’s a show about being at that in-between age when you transition from being young to old, when you start to realize you’re running out of chances to do certain things. The impending future takes up more space in your head than the past.

Unlike Liz Lemon, who makes regular jokes about not liking sex (Jack refers to her as a “sexual Hindenburg”), Carrie and her three friends enjoy it, have it regularly, and discuss it in detail. There’s a reason SATC comes up as often as it does. It addressed so many different sexual scenarios as to be almost invasive; it’s hard to not at least mentally refer to it when I’m talking with my friends about our real-life dating situations. It covered stuff no one on a sitcom had touched on before, like anal sex and the alternate interpretation of the words pearl necklace. If you watch the family-friendly reruns on TBS, where the sex scenes are cut out, the episodes are less funny and also weaker because of how entwined the sex is with the fiber of the plot. As silly as it may sound, the episode where Samantha tries to sleep with a rich, geriatric sugar daddy needs to have that shot of his deal-breaker of a saggy butt. It makes you laugh and shudder. But it also reminds you how sticky and vulnerable and startling sex can be.

Is Sex and the City even a comedy? I initially thought its lack of actual jokes (or at least good ones; Carrie’s voice-over is full of hokey lines) might be what would tip the scale in 30 Rock’s favor. But when I rewatched SATC, I realized how funny the characters as people were. They spend the episodes entertaining each other. Aidan asking Carrie in the shower if she wants to go to Hawaii for their honeymoon: “Will you Maui me?” Carrie: “Did you just pun in the nude? What did I tell you about that?” There’s a real sense of using comedy the way it’s used in life, to help make your loved one’s pain feel lighter. When Carrie is sick with doubt about getting engaged, Miranda suggests they try on ugly dresses at “a horrible bridal shop a couple blocks away.” Carrie: “How do you even know this?” Miranda: “Because every time I pass it I go blecch.”

In the end of SATC, Carrie ends up with her original love, Mr. Big, and it feels optimistic and satisfying because it hadn’t felt like a foregone conclusion, even though they’d been getting back together off and on since the pilot. Meanwhile, Liz marries Criss, a guy who seemed more like a vehicle for jokes about hot dogs and vans than anyone viewers were truly invested in. (Wouldn’t we rather that Jon Hamm’s doctor character hadn’t turned into a weirdo?) Criss is barely even seen in the first half of the final season, and his character never transcends its jokey premise. Even his name, Criss Chross, is a gag. They wed so it will be easier for them to adopt a child. Liz initially resists the idea of a wedding, of wanting to feel like a princess, of buying into the cliché. “Liz, it’s okay to be a human woman,” Criss tells her. “No, its not,” she answers. “It’s the worst because of society.” It’s a small line, one that might not even seem funny just reading it on the page, but for me, it helped articulate my thoughts on my feelings for Liz Lemon. I love and appreciate her, am fairly convinced that Tina Fey’s bones are actually made out of funny, but also feel a little tired when I watch her. I just can never shake the feeling that Fey saddled her non-lap-sitting, couch-sex-averse, fashion-immune, career-before-men character with all those immense burdens so as to break the mold of every female character that came before her. She’s never allowed to be honestly vulnerable, to not go for the quip. Commitment to the joke always took priority, as even the show acknowledged:  

Jack: Don’t try and make it funny; just apologize.

Liz: I feel like people expect comedy.

Jack: They don’t. It’s just exhausting.

Though this factored into my inner debate, my ultimate decision came down to the same hot-button theory that’s being had in many classrooms across the country: evolution. 30 Rock’s characters not only didn’t grow; this freeze was a guiding principle. By even the third season you were able to plug in how the characters would react in any given situation. Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney would make it about herself and her mirror; Kenneth would reference his hick upbringing; Morgan’s Tracy Jordan would do something outrageously irresponsible without consequence. 30 Rock is as smart as any sitcom that has aired on television; it’s a show about comedy writers created by a top comedy writer. In its last few seasons, though, it felt mostly intended for comedy writers, too. Happy joke collecting morphed into taking notes.

In its finale, 30 Rock’s strengths and weakness were both on full display. The plotline about Lutz (played by 30 Rock writer John Lutz) choosing Blimpie’s for the last staff meal as revenge for seven years of his being treated like a punch line was the kind of absurdist comedy the show excelled at. What other show would devote so many precious final moments to a tangential character, simply because it’s funny? Liz Lemon ends up with the cliché of a storybook domestic life: the wife of a hot guy and the mother of two children. And she reacts to it all by firing off more jokes. “Kids are coming, show to save, DVR at 98 percent, but I’m just never in the mood to watch Treme. Okay, first thing first: I’ll watch Treme.” It felt like 30 Rock was trying to have it both ways — by inserting meaning and sentiment at the same time it deconstructed the meaning and sentiment.

At the end of SATC, Charlotte, like Liz, finds out she is adopting a baby, but only after a painful scene where the potential birth parents she flew out to New York tell her they were just in it for the plane ticket; they’re keeping their baby. Samantha gets breast cancer. Miranda spends the finale escorting her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother-in-law home after finding her eating pizza out of a trash can. While Carrie ultimately ends up with Mr. Big, we had seen her change over the course of the show’s run. She matures and regresses and then matures again. She grows wearier. Like 30 Rock, SATC throws jokes at these problems, but there’s a core of pathos that makes them different. They acknowledge pain. Says the roulette dealer to Carrie after she asks what happens after the number 36, “I don’t know. I guess you fall off the table.” Carrie to her friends when they board a bus to Atlantic City full of old women: “As we can see here, at the end of the line it’s just going to be us ladies riding the bus.”

Del Close, one of the creator’s of modern sketch improv, wrote a book that laid out what he considered the foundation of comedy. In a nutshell, it’s “Be honest. Don’t go for the jokes. There’s nothing funnier than the truth.” What I find so unusual about SATC is that it allowed its characters to express that they were dissatisfied and sad. If they felt lonely, they said it, without meta commentary and while still keeping it funny. There’s very much a pre-SATC world and a post- one, and there is something refreshing and authentic about this show being able to have done this. In other words, the difference between Liz Lemon saying she’s a wreck and Carrie saying it on SATC is the difference between the women on Mad Men smoking while pregnant and the 1973 scene in The Exorcist where the doctor lights up a cigarette in his examination room. With one, you laugh at the brilliant parody. With the other, you laugh because it was real. Final point goes to truth.

Winner: Sex and the City

Starlee Kine is a contributor to the public radio program "This American Life." She is secretly competing for a higher Twitter follower count with at least three people, so feel free to help her out.