10 episodes that show how 30 Rock tweaked the sitcom formula

10 episodes that show how 30 Rock tweaked the sitcom formula

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

30 Rock turned out to be one of the television medium’s best shows about itself—but not in the way creator Tina Fey originally intended. As Fey tells the story in her autobiography, Bossypants, the first pitch of her post-Saturday Night Live development deal with NBC revolved around a cable-news producer tasked with righting her network’s sinking ship with a show hosted by a right-wing blowhard (“Alec Baldwin if we could ever get him,” Fey adds as an aside). Then-NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly passed on the pitch, but in the rewrite process suggested Fey take the old “write what you know” approach and craft a pilot based on her experiences as the first female head writer of The Peacock’s venerable sketch-comedy franchise. “I was reluctant, because it seemed self-indulgent to write about the show directly,” Fey writes in Bossypants. “I had really liked the cable-news pitch because I liked the idea of writing Alec Baldwin as a powerful conservative, having him articulate passionately the opposite of everything he believes in real life.” Following the advice of husband (and eventual 30 Rock composer) Jeff Richmond, Fey kept everything about the Baldwin-based character the same, installed him in a position of power at NBC, actually got Baldwin for the pilot, and in the process secured a foil against which her fictional alter ego, Liz Lemon, could rail for seven years and 138 episodes.

But there were plenty of growing pains ahead: Rachel Dratch was initially cast as the self-centered star of 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show (a part Fey wrote specifically for her longtime comedic collaborator) but was booted from the role after poor pre-air testing; much to the consternation of sitting NBC boss Jeff Zucker, Baldwin had yet to sign a contract to star on 30 Rock at the time the network picked up the show. And then there’s the matter of what showed up on screen when 30 Rock debuted in October of 2006. The best TV comedies take a few episodes to find their sea legs, and the 30 Rock pilot—with its narrow focus on the business of producing the show’s SNL surrogate, The Girlie Show—is wobbly to the point of distraction. The pacing’s off, there’s undue priority given to TGS’ fake sketches—yet there’s an undeniable spark between Liz and Jack Donaghy, Baldwin’s bullheaded executive bent on boosting TGS’ profile by adding unhinged movie star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to the cast. It’s the kind of chemistry that other shows might rush to alchemize into will-they/won’t-they tension, one of many sitcom conventions 30 Rock would gleefully tweak (and occasionally pay reverent homage to) in the years to come.

Six seasons later, 30 Rock is as much about the relationship between Liz and Jack as it is the relationship between Liz and her show. That was an important distinction to make as Fey and the writing staff found their comedic voice, an often skeptical, occasionally cynical perspective that mocked indiscriminately, frequently bit the hand(s) that fed it, and often turned its harshest criticisms inward. As that happened, 30 Rock became less about making TGS and more about the creative process in general. Liz represented for artistic integrity; Jack stood for the impulse to strip that integrity bare and make it dance for money in front of millions of people. In between them stood Morgan’s character and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski in the role conceived for Dratch), vain fame whores forever corrupting the innocent worldview of TV-worshipping network page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer). While recalling the original 30 Rock pitch in Bossypants, Fey recalls thinking that Liz, Jack, and Tracy could agree or disagree in “endless combinations” about “race, gender, politics, workplace ethics, money, sex, women’s basketball…” Those combinations didn’t prove endless, per se, but they did provide enough fodder to power some 138 episodes of a show that was never more than a modest hit for NBC. (The network’s mid-to-late-’00s ratings woes were of dual benefit for the series: They gave the show another target for jokes and a lowered barrier for renewal.)

Yet 30 Rock has never been defined by a strong sense of storytelling. While trying its hand at the tight serialization that became de rigueur for TV comedies during its run, the most memorable installments of the show establish themselves on self-contained concerns and a barrage of laughs. The most important hurdle to clear in the early episodes of 30 Rock was basic characterization; from there, Fey and the writers could employ the pragmatic “endless combinations” strategy to crank out some of the fastest, smartest, and funniest network comedy of the decade. Of the post-Arrested Development boom of single-camera comedy, 30 Rock has the best chance of survival in syndication. Dropping in on a rerun requires a modicum of place-finding, usually predicated on who Jack or Liz are dating. (Though viewers were rarely asked to give the main characters’ love interests more thought than they would any of Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriends of the week.) But the true selling point of 30 Rock repeats is the humor. The series may have helped catalyze the ongoing half-hour revolution, but its roots run deep into TV history. And in becoming less outwardly about television, it entrenched itself further in the legacy of the medium.

“Tracy Does Conan” (season one, episode seven): A.k.a. the “unofficial 30 Rock pilot.” There were steady signs of improvement before the show’s seventh episode (the back-to-back Robert Carlock scripts “Jack The Writer” and “Jack-Tor,” for example), but at the nine-minute mark of “Tracy Does Conan,” the show that 30 Rock eventually became emerges, carried aloft by Jeff Richmond’s busy-bee score. As Liz zips from fire to fire—Tracy’s gone off his meds before a big Late Night appearance, Jenna’s upset that he bumped her from Conan O’Brien’s couch, and Jack needs some jokes for a dinner honoring GE icon Jack Welch—the episode picks up the pace accordingly, ramping up the delirium in time to its protagonist’s plummeting blood-sugar levels. “Tracy Does Conan” is also noteworthy for one of the first great Liz-Jack exchanges: “Why are you wearing a tux?” “It’s after 6. What am I? A farmer?”

“Fireworks” (season one, episode 18): The only thing Jack loves more than money are the corporate overlords who give him money—and he’ll do anything to win their favor and/or keep the light of their partiality from shining on another cunning company man. In “Fireworks,” that means televising a three-hour pyrotechnic spectacular in midtown Manhattan and dangling nubile rube Kenneth in front of horny GE up-and-comer Devin Banks, played to gravel-voiced perfection by Will Arnett. In a brilliant commentary of corporate shortsightedness, Jack’s maneuvering literally blows up in his face. Elsewhere in the episode, Baldwin cameos in Tracy’s dreams as Thomas Jefferson, who’s booed by a rowdy Maury audience; no week on 30 Rock was a good week for The Man, but “Fireworks” sticks it to that amorphous authority figure better than most.

“Rosemary’s Baby” (season two, episode four): The competing interests of art and commerce collide when Liz accepts the $10,000 prize for the GE Followship Award (“Awarded to the woman—sorry, person—who best exemplifies a follower”), then corrects that sell-out move by hiring her childhood hero, rabble-rousing comedy writer Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher). This one’s all about finding the intersection between Liz and Jack’s points of view: Playing ball with the network doesn’t necessarily mean integrating a character with a GE microwave for a head; thumbing one’s nose at the establishment doesn’t need to be couched in the type of obtuse political screeds (“Remember the mailbox sketch that shocked America?”) or empty provocations (“We open on a New Orleans abortion clinic…”) in which Rosemary specializes. Instead, just make “Rosemary’s Baby.” (Then again, maybe this is all just an excuse to make Princess Leia say, “Help me, Liz Lemon, you’re my only hope!”)

“Ludachristmas” (season two, episode nine): Christmas could bring out the Grinch in 30 Rock, but the holiday was also a good opportunity for displaying the show’s cuddly side. When a visit from Jack’s mother, Colleen (Broadway icon Elaine Stritch, yet another in the show’s murderers’ row of guest players), coincides with the Lemon family’s Yuletide New York City holiday, the grande dame sets about to prove that the seemingly chipper Lemons are as dysfunctional as she and her son. The love-hate relationship between Jack and Colleen is one of the crucial facets of Jack’s character, and the bond exposed in “Ludachristmas” helped make the show’s final Christmas installment, “My Whole Life Is Thunder,” an emotionally gutting experience worthy of the holiday.

“MILF Island” (season two, episode 11): In which the phrase “I didn’t come here to make friends!” crossed over from reality-show cliché to pop-culture punchline. In one of 30 Rock’s most structurally daring installments, backbiting and betrayal among the TGS staff parallels the action of the reality-show parody playing in the background of the entire episode, an age-inappropriate Survivor/Bachelor hybrid that’s the crown jewel of Jack’s new programming slate. With the forced suspense of its act breaks and the tawdry behavior of the regulars, “MILF Island” delivers a penetrating spoof of the reality shows that subsidize pricier network efforts like 30 Rock—all the while implying that shows like MILF Island can generate compelling drama just as well as their scripted counterparts.

“The Funcooker” (season three, episode 14): Co-written by Tom Ceraulo and an ambitious young story editor named Donald Glover, “The Funcooker” perfects the “Jack meddles in TGS’ domain” plotline with a story where the man upstairs enlists the writing staff in the task of naming GE’s new portable microwave. It’s also one of the finest examples of 30 Rock as a high-cylinder joke-delivery machine, with a memorable cutaway (Tracy and Jenna’s disastrous stint hosting NBC’s coverage of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade), bad medical advice from Chris Parnell’s Dr. Leo Spaceman, the always funny indulgence of Liz’s Star Wars fixation, and a button that reveals the true definition of “funcooker.”

“Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001” (season four, episode seven): Several storylines introduced as a way to pit Liz’s desire for a happy home life with her need to be fulfilled at work proved to be non-starters: her recently resumed quest to adopt a child, her move to Cleveland, her torrid affair with an airline pilot played by Matt Damon. At least the end of Liz’s reign as the bestselling author of the relationship-advice tome Dealbreakers ended with the hysterical train wreck of her stab at becoming “the swarthy, big-hipped Kelly Ripa” (Jack’s words). 30 Rock itself was threatening to fly off the rails at this point, but even among diminishing returns, the show could deliver the GIF-ready filming of Liz’s awkward Dealbreakers promo shoot (“Remember waving?”) and the long-anticipated reveal of what her imaginary boyfriend Astronaut Mike Dexter looks like. 

“TGS Hates Women” (season five, episode 16): It’s rarely a good thing when a TV show addresses its critics directly, but accusations that Jenna’s irrational behavior and bubbleheaded assistant Cerie (Katrina Bowden) perpetuate negative female stereotypes received a hilarious rejoinder in the form of “TGS Hates Women.” What those criticisms ignore is that 30 Rock is an equal-opportunity offender, and when the male TGS writers go nuts for the staff’s newest hire—a baby-talking, foul-mouthed, scantily clad stand-up who’s a jumble of several real-life female comics supposedly skating by on looks alone—it’s the show’s main character who ends up looking like the misogynist. While standing up for an underrepresented group in comedy, Tina Fey isn’t afraid to look foolish—and that’s one of the reasons it’s been nice to have her on TV for the last 13 years.

“Live From Studio 6H” (season six, episode 19): The first 30 Rock live show was an ill-advised disaster; the second—with a script credited to Fey and Jack Burditt—forgoes the challenge of squeezing the hectic rhythms and complex editing of the average 30 Rock into a live broadcast. Instead, it harkens back to the show’s source material. Positioned as a bottle episode—with the core cast confined to Tracy’s dressing room—“Live From Studio 6H” uses sketch-like flashbacks to form a warmhearted tribute to the glory days of live TV. For all of the Bitch Hunters and America’s Kidz Got Singings that 30 Rock tossed out over the years, the show really did have a soft spot for television. It only mocked because it cared.

My Whole Life Is Thunder” (season seven, episode eight): As 30 Rock comes to a close, it’s done a satisfying job of bringing many of its major threads full circle: One episode after Liz got married to a stud who runs a hot dog stand (James Marsden as Criss Cross, certainly the best-named of Liz’s suitors), Jenna and male Jenna impersonator Paul L’Astname (Will Forte) were wed in an appropriately weird surprise ceremony, and Jack finally earned the approval of his mother. Even in a big event episode like “My Whole Life Is Thunder,” 30 Rock finds several opportunities to duck convention, all the while giving due respect to the characters it’s so affectionately crafted. “My Whole Life Is Thunder” ends with an epic montage that combines a touching eulogy, brief spotlights for all of its main characters, and a cameo by Kermit The Frog. (30 Rock may have more of The Muppet Show than Saturday Night Live in its DNA at this point.) The show may be ending on January 31, but this wouldn’t have been a bad place to end, either.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Jack-Tor” (season one, episode five), “Cleveland” (season one, episode 20), “Jack Gets In The Game” (season two, episode two), “Episode 210” (season two, episode 10), “Subway Hero” (season two, episode 12), “Sandwich Day” (season two, episode 14), “Señor Macho Solo” (season three, episode seven), “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” (season three, episode 18), “The Moms” (season four, episode 20) “Leap Day” (season six, episode nine)

Availability: The first six seasons are available on DVD as well as Netflix streaming. The five most recent episodes of the show stream at Hulu.

Next week: SCTV is on the air! Or, more accurately, the Internet! Phil Dyess-Nugent tells you where to start.

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