For 30 Rock to even hit 100 episodes is an achievement unto itself. When it started at the same time as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I’m not sure many people would have placed money on Tina Fey over Aaron Sorkin to hit this milestone. If you did place that wager, well, you watched tonight’s episode on a 200-inch 3D plasma screen inside your volcano lair. Bravo, forward thinker. Bravo.
Not too long ago, NBC would construct certain nights of programming around a certain theme. Sometimes “Green Week” would dominate the landscape, or there would be a coordinated series of super-sized episodes to temporarily eliminate a show like The Single Guy that was bringing the overall quality of the night down through its simple existence. That both 30 Rock and Community featured flashback-heavy episodes tonight that consciously dwelled on the show’s run was probably a coincidence, but it’s a pretty damn big one all the same. Watching the latter before the former probably didn’t do me any favors, as I was fairly burned out on meta-nostalgia by the end of 30 Rock’s hour-long episode.
That isn’t an opening invitation to compare and contrast the ways in which the two shows approached their look backs tonight. But while the thematic character link of “100” was strong, it suffered from a variety of factors. The core concept was solid: Liz, Jack, Tracy, and Jenna all have to face their lives after five years working together at NBC. With the speed and insanity at which each of them push themselves in order to simply survive the next show, a half decade of their lives passed without them quite realizing it. All four characters approached this milestone in different ways, and had the episode simply followed those four around, it might have worked better than it did.
Unfortunately, while trying to be a four-part character study, it was also a homage to the show’s history itself. Being one or the other might have been a perfectly fine way to spend an hour. 30 Rock isn’t really known for its strong characterizations (aside from Liz and Jack), so eschewing sentiment wouldn’t have hurt. And as self-referential as the show is, doing a simple clip show in the ramp up to TGS’ 100th episode would have been an easy but effective way to showcase the program’s signature moments. Doing both felt like Fey and Company trying to have their cake and eat it too, only to have it taste worse than the liquid version of Farm Aid. A barrage of old clips, returning characters, and various references kept the show in the past, even while its characters were trying to face the future.
On top of that, the show’s previous focus on comedy over character hurt one half of the would-be Fab Four. To say that Tracy and Jenna are essentially caricatures five years into the program isn’t a slam on Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski. Those characters are designed to be ciphers, with the actors succeeding and failing by and large by the way they are depicted within a particular episode. For Tracy to stress about his newfound credibility continues the themes from last week’s episode. It’s weak but at least has precedent, however brief. That being said, Jenna’s sudden desire for children is undercut not only but her inner selfishness but a lack of history that would have ever hinted at such a desire. It’s just an excuse for some Jenna gags, which were perfectly fine but, like Tracy’s arc, extremely small potatoes when compared to those of Liz and Jack.
To get at why this pair works, let’s address one of the reasons that 30 Rock outlasted Studio 60: 30 Rock realizes that its show within a show totally and utterly sucks. Studio 60 faltered the moment Matthew Perry’s supposed brilliant auteur wrote sketches that wouldn’t have made it to air on MAD TV. But TGS is supposed to be terrible, and therefore, 30 Rock doesn’t have the burden to fall upon any reality other than NBC’s terrible record of developing quality, hit programs. What bonds Liz and Jack is not that they created a hit series through force of personality and combination of individual skill sets. What bonds them is that they both aid each other through careers that don’t live up to either of their expectations or aspirations.
I’m sure for many that Jack’s meta moment atop 30 Rockefeller stood out as a highlight. I’m fairly tolerant of the way in which the show plays with wink-wink moments, as the show itself often seeks to derive humor from an audience awareness of the medium and not especially seeking to make the audience care about its characters as anything other than laugh-producing bags of flesh. When it makes fun of NBC, it’s funny to see the show bite the hand that feeds it but also sad to know that the network is in such rough shape that it probably has no choice but to let this stuff slide. But for Jack to exist in a world in which he’s in the “gravestone” that is NBC/Kabletown is one thing. For Jack to simply comment on Alec Baldwin’s career is a step too far.
Indeed, the excuse of repeated gas leaks to stretch the already thin veneer of reality in this universe often produced the most groan-worthy moments of the show. It’s one thing to have everyone going around, acting high on fumes. It’s another to have Danny channel the memories of long-lost TGS cast member Josh Girard, a moment that was funny but in violation of the show’s reality. I recognize that for some, talking about the “rules of reality” in a comedy such as this seems academic and/or just plain stupid, but there have to be rules by which any particular fictional universe is run for things to be optimally effective. 30 Rock is a show in which most oddities exist either 1) in odd but believable personality quirks, or 2) on a production level we see at home but is removed from its fictional world. A gas leak makes Tracy Jordan contemplate killing Kenneth, but it doesn’t provide him with Cyclops-esque concussive force emitting from his eyes to do the job. Yet, Jenna’s hysterical pregnancy really confused the lines between collective dementia and straight-up sci-fi in ways that wanted to be absurd but just came off as inconsistent.
30 Rock doesn’t need a gas leak for its denizens to act crazy. Most other comedies might need such a conceit just to get their characters to the normal level of nuts on this show, but everyone in 30 Rock is already kind of insane as a baseline. Taking that baseline and pumping it up to the moon might have produced some concentrated lunacy for a single week. But many gags in the gas-induced floors of the building sought to go for cheap laughs rather than ones built upon the organic world that already existed. They were jokes that didn’t connect because they had no background with which the audience could associate. Which character could see what hallucination varied upon the need of the joke at that finite moment, which made these jokes not unlike song selection/execution in Glee.
The Four Horseman of the Jackocalypse worked, however, because the conceit was built from the character outwards. Here’s a man that five years after building his office feels trapped within his walls but also within his psyche as well. Having Future Jack wear a smoker’s jacket from the movie Tron was amusing, to be sure, but worked primarily as the vehicle through which Jack could work through his relationship with Liz as a positive, not a negative, aspect of his life.
Liz’s gas-induced path didn’t quite resonate as much, primarily because any plot with Dennis feels like… well, the last plot with Dennis. “It’s Never Too Late For Now” felt like a potential turning point for her character, but Dennis’ appearances always seem to being her back to Square One. Jack comes away from tonight’s episode knowing that Liz’s presence in his life is a benefit. Liz comes away knowing that Jack is the one person that never left her side, but that doesn’t exactly leave them on common ground. Jack has the benefit of a wife and child at home, even if the show periodically likes to forget that. Liz has TGS and has it thanks to a boss who recognizes and often coddles her craziness. That’s not nothing, but the show needs to give Liz some balance outside of work as well. They support each other in the office, but Jack has his own support system at home. Liz needs that as well going forth for the two to truly be in sync.
After all, it’s not like she’s pouring the pain from her life of solitude into searing, groundbreaking television sketch comedy.
- “Pam: The Overly-Confident Morbidly Obese Woman”, has been done 107 times in 100 episodes of TGS. And that doesn’t even count her appearances on Archer.
- I didn’t mention Michael Keaton as the building’s maintenance man, since it was another example of show breaking its own reality in order to shoehorn in a plotline stolen from Hot Tub Time Machine. At least in that movie we got to watch Cusack and Co. desperately wait for Crispin Glover to lose an appendage.
- After hijacking the Elton John Saturday Night Live, Tom Hanks appeared as well tonight in a small scene in which he hummed the theme to Bosom Buddies. Did he learn NOTHING from Jack’s speech on the rooftop?
- If you think I’m going to venture what two fat people have to be doing to produce the sound “Pwomp!” you’d be wrong. But I have a sneaking suspicion you all will give it your best shot in the comments below.
- When Normal Jack said, “Sideways Jack was right!” my not-so-inner Lost nerd perked up for a moment.
- There were a lot of moments tonight in which Tracy and Dennis uttered their insane monologues in the exact same cadence. I’m anxiously awaiting some mash-ups of those.
- Mark your calendars: Polyblasians will be created in 2030.
- “I was in the middle of bidding on a bag of bras on eBay!”
- “Jesus was black!”
- “I saw that! How? Am I dead?”
- “Albinos get to be watchers in the mating shed.”
- “Frank, put that bigger hat back on!”
- “Troll penises! Oh my God! What have I done?”
- “We got our no-cook cooking, hair make-unders coming up!”
- “What is Farm-Aid? Is it a drink?”
- “I’m getting too old for the ssss… ound that comes from this gas pipe!”
- “He played with it, then he kissed it, then he ate it.”
- “Get off of stage! No whites!”
- “It’s not rape if neither party really wants it!”
- “Look at Roman Polanski.” “No, thank you.”
- “You’re a cook in the bedroom and a whore in the kitchen.”
- “You didn’t say it was the Bills!”
- “It’s a receipt for some lez pants.”
- “We all have doubts, K-Tel Records!”
- “Clooney? Hanks. Actor emergency!”