When Liz Lemon left the airwaves nine months ago, she didn’t leave behind any daughters. The female-driven sitcoms that remain on the current network rotation owe little to 30 Rock. Parks and Recreation‘s sunny Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and New Girl‘s hipster-cute Jess (Zooey Deschanel) are about as far as you can get from prickly, taped-together bra-wearing Liz. Likewise, The Mindy Project‘s boy-crazy Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and 2 Broke Girls‘ gum-smackingly unambitious Max Black (Kat Dennings) have few concerns in common with the TGS showrunner and owner of Lesbian Frankenstein’s shoes.
But Liz may have gifted us with a son in Andy Samberg. The Lonely Island frontman’s new show on Fox, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, seems to have adopted 30 Rock‘s heavy use of sketch-comedic flashcuts as its own. Tina Fey’s show wasn’t the first to use digressive asides, of course. Family Guy is notorious for its ADD-addled, plot-irrelevant side gags like the Peter vs. Giant Chicken fistfight, while mockumentaries like Arrested Development, Modern Family, and the aforementioned Parks and Rec occasionally use them, usually in the form of flashbacks, to add context to a scenario while squeezing in an extra laugh.
It was The Simpsons that arguably pioneered the flashcut, but that show’s animated nature undercuts its absurdism; when everything is possible, nothing seems all that outlandish. On the other hand, the live-action quality of sketch comedy, especially when performed by known actors or comedians, accentuates the silliness.
30 Rock‘s flashcuts evoked Fey’s roots in sketch comedy by forging a middle ground between the goofy absurdism of Family Guy‘s excursions and the mockumentary sitcoms’ more modest, character-deepening supplementary scenes. When the camera pans to show, for example, Kenneth’s Muppet-centric perspective or an excerpt from Tracy’s music video for “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” there’s a looseness from reality, made delightful by seeing familiar actors in outlandish costumes and situations, that’s grounded by solid character development.
That 30 Rock could be, at is core, about a rather serious topic — a nearly middle-aged woman with legitimate fears over whether she can have both a fulfilling career and a family she won’t either totally ignore or drive crazy — and still sustain wild tonal variations from the whimsical flashcuts meant Fey and her writers had infused the straightforwardness of sitcom storytelling with the heterogeneity of her former program, Saturday Night Live.
Thus, it’s no surprise that another SNL alum seems to have picked up 30 Rock‘s baton — and used it to create the fall’s best new sitcom. Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t rely on the flashcut with as much manic dependence that Fey’s show did, but each time the show swooshes to a flashback, it’s a memorable detour. In the first one of the series, Peralta (Samberg) reminisces about his awesomely indifferent old boss by cutting to a scene of him and fellow-detective Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz). Seated on rolling chairs, the two race to see who can cross a yellow police-tape line first by fueling themselves across the police station with fire extinguishers. The scene is a small gem: it establishes the characters’ history while expanding our understanding of Peralta and offering the kind of ridiculous but not preposterous scenario we can expect from the show.
It’s possible that, as we get to know Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s characters better, the flashback technique could be dropped in the same way Sex and the City cast off its interview-on-the-street framing device after the first season. But given how playful and arm-flailingly silly the show is despite its setting in an urban police department, that seems unlikely.
But whatever its ultimate fate on Brooklyn Nine-Nine — or, for that matter, the fate of Brooklyn Nine-Nine itself — the flashcut is here to stay — and 30 Rock a legacy to cherish.
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