TV Eye: 30 Rock and Jonathan Meades on France

30 Rock

Jacob Knowles-Smith on homophobia in elitist liberal comedy and nationalism in polymath documentaries

After the inconvenience of creator Tina Fey’s pregnancy, the new season of 30 Rock (NBC) has finally aired. If there was one impact of her pregnancy on the show it was Fey’s slightly fuller face – which, I should say, was only noticeable when compared to Alec Baldwin’s now deflated head and less-substantial figure. At first I feared a slimmer model Jack Donaghy might lessen his comic presence, but, after watching the first episode twice and the second episode, I was too busy listening out for the rapid-fire dialogue which makes a second viewing a must when it comes to 30 Rock. One question, however, still remains, who now will spearhead the campaign for weightier, middle-aged men to be considered as sex symbols?

Gay fans of 30 Rock who haven’t already switched off because of Tracy Morgan’s homophobic comments last summer, might well be dissuaded by Jack – though he’s still very much a ‘daddy’ – no longer being so much of a ‘bear’. Furthermore, I’m not sure Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Jordan, having his own homophobic controversy will draw back the LGBT audience, but I’m sure he regrets his comments and it’s a pretty good stab at a public apology.

As ever, the show’s subplots remain inventive and anarchic – from hayseed zealot Kenneth’s disappointment over the Rapture failing to transpire, to Kelsey Grammer reprising his role as conman-extraordinaire. There’s also an ever-welcome slap in the face to Simon Cowell in the form of Jack’s new reality TV vehicle: America’s Kids Got Singing. I leave the only comment that needs to be said about such ‘talent contests’ to panel judge D’Fwan: “You need to remember reality television is formulaic.”

When the Republican candidates vituperate their inflamed rhetoric against the ‘elitist liberal media’, one can only assume that 30 Rock is high on their lists of targets. Of course, in reality (somewhere far from the primaries), those targets are a pretty narrow field – the vast majority of America media products – from TV to newspapers – do have an underlying message of the primacy of family values, patriotism and Christianity. 30 Rock, however, is heretical because it dares to suggest that all America is equally, well, American. There is no bucolic heartland that remains sheltered from tendrils of the east and west coasts, and New York and Los Angeles are not completely peopled by cosmopolitan hipsters and pro-choice heathens. But there is a reason the presidential hopefuls are required to expound on this cultural divide – to distract people from remembering that that the Gingriches and Romneys are also part of the elite.

Another oft-presumed elitist, Jonathan Meades, returned to BBC4 this week with Jonathan Meades on France. Not that you’d really know about it because, though his previous documentary series about Scotland, Off-Kilter, was widely reviewed and praised in the press, a wordy-overachiever talking about France is clearly a step too far. Susan Sontag described a polymath as someone who is interested in everything and nothing else. This might be a fair description of Meades, but, as Jonathan Miller once pointed out, ‘polymath’ is more usually a slur in Britain, as if being interested in more than one thing is catholic indulgence.

Nevertheless, BBC4 is the welcoming home of people who are interested in things – even multiple things – and Meades’s first-of-three films about France was as diverse in content as a week’s schedule for that channel. All the subjects were things beginning with V; Valise, Vedette, Voltaire; and if there was a loose thread running throughout – but not all of them – it was the OAS, the far-right nationalist terrorist group that tried to prevent Algerian independence in the 60s. Meades seems to have mixed-feelings about the group and, if not sympathy, understanding of their aims. He has, however, no understanding – certainly no sympathy – with nationalism, and this is a theme throughout many of his earlier films. Illustrated overtly in documentaries about Nazi and Stalinist architecture and more subtly in ones about British culture, the message Meades tries to convey, and rightly so, is that identifying too closely with where one comes from stymies progression of culture and diminishes us as individuals. Modernism, for example, has no ‘nationalist etiquette’ attached to it and was thusly despised by the far right; fascism allows its subjects no identity other than homogeneity. This might sound unpatriotic, but people (those Republican candidates especially) should consider whether they’d rather be defined by their background or by their talents and individuality.

On France has a much more personal perspective than Meades’s other documentaries; the country – where he now lives – became his, he says, in 1962, when the OAS declared their war. At that time, the architecture of France also inspired ‘wonder and delight’ in his fifteen-year old self – he didn’t make the connections then that he describes for us now, but he has tried to make a career out of making us wonder about things, and, for me at least, that is a constant delight.

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