When the commercial first appeared during this year's Emmy broadcast, it was so fun, so refreshing. Tina Fey giving us a snappy "behind-the-scenes look" at "30 Rock" and shilling for American Express at the same time. It did one's heart good to see Fey, female survivor of "Saturday Night Live," new mother and TV's Every-gal, join the ranks of Robert DeNiro, Kate Winslet and Karl Malden.
Why shouldn't she have her own AmEx campaign? She'd earned the right, riding out a bumpy start to a show that debuted poorly and was the underdog compared with Aaron Sorkin's anointed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." We laughed and laughed, so close did Fey seem to her on-screen persona, the kooky and adorable Liz Lemon. The writers' room is on fire! Of course it is.
Then came the Emmy win, all the accolades, the A-list guest stars (Jerry Seinfeld! Al Gore!), a Golden Globe nom, not to mention a writers strike, and suddenly the spot isn't nearly as charming as it once was. For one thing, NBC keeps running it during "30 Rock," which just messes with your TiVo and your head. Fast-forwarding through commercials, you see Tina Fey, so you stop only to discover that it's an AmEx spot, the very reason you bought a TiVo in the first place, which just makes you feel like a chump. Thanks, Tina!
More important, seeing Fey in two so similar roles makes it difficult to keep the characters as characters -- now wait, is she the lovelorn neurotic who lives in squalor, or is she the show runner of the best comedy on television? It would help if Fey would, I don't know, wear a different sweater for the ad. Just so we know whom we're dealing with.
"30 Rock" has a history of satirizing the whole advertising process -- openly promoting GE on the show-within-the-show while making fun of openly promoting GE on the show. So maybe NBC thinks airing an ad about the making of a show during the actual show lends it comedic, if not artistic, merit. Yet the spot pushes Fey once and for all across the line dividing Us from Them. The point of this campaign is to capitalize on the wishful, wistful "stars are just like us" hymn sung so fervently by Us magazine and the rest of the entertainment press. But most viewers have noticed that they are rarely, if ever, offered a lucrative contract to be a credit card spokesperson. Fey is messing with her brand, and AmEx would be the first to tell you this isn't a good idea.
Either way, there is no going back; weighted down with an Emmy statue, "30 Rock" is playing with the big boys now. Neither Fey nor her show can count on the Little-Engine-That-Could sympathy Americans love to feel, because if you can get Seinfeld and Gore, then who's next? Oprah? Keith Richards? "Underdog" is no longer a relevant term.
Fortunately, "30 Rock" remains the funniest show on television. (When exactly did Alec Baldwin become the most versatile actor of his generation? NBC really should have sent out a press release.) But the strike adds a new and bitter poignancy to the ad. The writers' room is on fire? You wish; there hasn't been anyone in it for weeks. But you're right, Tina, you can't do it alone and for better or worse, at double-digit interest rates, credit cards will be carrying the now-nonworking members of the entertainment industry until this strike ends. Which isn't fun or refreshing no matter how you think about it.