30 Rock: “The Aftermath” / “Blind Date”
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Alec Baldwin (left), Tracy Morgan
Alec Baldwin (left), Tracy Morgan

30 Rock: “The Aftermath” / “Blind Date”

“You are a puzzle, Kenneth Ellen—and I’m going to solve you. Yes I am.”

“The Aftermath” (originally aired 10/18/2008)/“Blind Date” (originally aired 10/25/2008)

In which in five years we’ll all either be working for Kenneth or be dead by his hand…

It can be painful to watch a television show in the throes of figuring itself out. There’s a trial-and-error process evident in these first few episodes of 30 Rock that might not be there if, say, the story of Liz Lemon were being told in on the page or on the big screen. (This would be a terrible idea; of television 30 Rock was born and of television 30 Rock was meant to be.) The seams are showing here, which both invites the viewer’s understanding and prompts us to want something better.

And then sequences like the poker games from “Blind Date” come forward, and they make the waiting worth it.

There’s such poise and confidence on display in these scenes, from the people who showed it in the premiere, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, to the intangibles like timing and transitions. When Liz walks through the writers’ room in her “fancy prostitute” dress, it initiates a give-and-go chain of comedic momentum that she picks back up in the elevator, where she has the second of the episode’s three choking scares. It’s imbued with the type of energy the walk-and-talks from “The Aftermath” and “Blind Date” can only grasp at. The 30 Rock machine is beginning to become properly oiled.

But “The Aftermath” was never going to be much of an improvement over the 30 Rock pilot, if only for the realities of television production. The first episode of a series is the best product that came out of months of fine tuning; the second episode came together in a much shorter amount of time. Fittingly titled, “The Aftermath” is a logical continuation of the pilot, in which we watch the chain reactions caused by Jack’s arrival at NBC. Thankfully, there’s not too much reiteration of what came before, just the Tracy drama that isn’t dealt with in the premiere. The episode even manages to offer up an excellent variation on the old “They’re standing right behind me, aren’t they?” gag: Live microphones and rolling cameras keep broadcasting Liz’s true feelings about Jack (“certified non-genius”) and her staff. This is the type of laugh that’s helped along by 30 Rock’s chosen workplace, a joke that arises naturally from the showbiz setting (and the story of Liz learning to be a boss), rather than being shoehorned into it.

But it’s “Blind Date” where the acceleration kicks in. The pilot and “The Aftermath” are held back because the show in 30 Rock’s future would’ve run through the events of both episodes in 22 minutes. The party on the yacht, for example, could’ve been handled with the same mix of cutaways, flashbacks, and suggestion as “Kenneth Parcell’s last party ever” in season two’s “Greenzo.” (I wonder if the same could’ve been done with Liz currying Tracy’s favor in the pilot, since both sequences go a few beats too long and are of a similarly excessive vibe.) The third episode might hit the gas too hard, since John Riggi’s script feels like it could end in act two: Jack weasels his way into the TGS poker game, only to be defeated by Kenneth’s apple-faced goonery at the card table.

That’s not 30 Rock’s style, though, and this is not the way Jack Donaghy will learn his lessons. (If he learns any lessons at all.) Instead, the episode’s true ending comes at a lavish, catered affair (featuring a giant shrimp made out of shrimp and diving into a bowl of shrimp) staged so that the supposedly humbled Donaghy can pull a reverse humbling on Kenneth. The second poker night is very nearly the yacht party of “Blind Date,” but the exhilaration of multiple storylines intersecting in the single setting keeps the scene from collapsing. It’s just like the excellent juggling act that occurs during the first card game, with a focus on Jack and the writers that cleanly shifts to bring Liz back into the picture. It’s a great, energizing conduit for the episode, threading Liz’s platonic romance with Gretchen through Jack’s antagonistic mentorship of Kenneth.

A lot of the humor in these two episodes is driven by fear: Jenna’s fear of losing TGS to Tracy, Liz’s fear of dying alone, or Jack’s fear that some pig-farmer’s son from Stone Mountain, Georgia could one day rise up and claim his corner office. But only the latter two fears are played upon with any authentic emotion—and in the case of Jack, this involves insecurities that show has yet to truly depict. My point is that TGS is all trickery; TGS is a shell game these early episodes are playing with the viewer, an enticement (“What’s really going on behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live?”) that’s ultimately empty. The characters that work at TGS, however, feel real, and their motivations feel legitimate—when they’re removed from the context of a fictional television program, at least. The play’s not the thing on 30 Rock—the people are.

And when those people are locked into place, they become tremendously potent springboards for jokes. That can be sensed from Liz and Jack in all three of the show’s first episodes, but Kenneth and Tracy start to come into sharper focus in “Blind Date.” Tracy Morgan scores the first great 30 Rock punchline when he ends his game rules with “fives are twos,” and Jack McBrayer is so comfortable in his character’s discomfort that I could’ve sworn he was going to say the drawling Donaghy sounded like Kenneth’s mom’s friend Ron. Fey and Baldwin are pulling an ensemble together with their combined gravity, and the more time they spend onscreen together, the better they all become at selling weird little details like Kenneth’s middle name. (It’s “Ellen,” which riffs nicely off of Liz’s very Ellen DeGeneres sweater vest/tennis shows ensemble.)

And then there’s the kicker to Kenneth’s time at the poker table—“In five years we’ll all either be working for him or be dead by his hand”—a singularly 30 Rock line that Baldwin delivers note-perfectly (with a crucial, pregnant-pause assist from the editors). “Blind Date” is not the turning point for 30 Rock’s first season, but it is evidence of a show that’s on the verge of discovering itself. There’s starting to be a TV show here—even if it’s not the one that “The Aftermath” is so concerned with saving.

Stray observations:

  • Apologies for the combo review, and sorry it’s going up so late; I got hung up on current events this morning. (Also, there’s just not that much to say about “The Aftermath” that I didn’t say in my piece about the pilot.) Next week, I promise separate considerations for both parts of the Donaghy double feature “Jack The Writer” and “Jack-Tor.”
  • Adam Bernstein directed the first three episodes of 30 Rock (and a handful of other season-one installments, including “Tracy Does Conan”) and won an Emmy for his efforts as supervising producer. He didn’t end up returning for the writers’-strike-shortened 2007-08 season, however, as Vince Gilligan gave Bernstein an invitation to New Mexico that he couldn’t turn down.
  • The guy with the crappy cooking-class pick-up line at the end of “Blind Date,” meanwhile, would move into an L.A. loft with five irrepressible, thirtysomething goofballs: That’s New Girl co-showrunner Brett Baer.
  • Frank can’t have four bears for “the robot-bear sketch,” which seems only fair, because Liz doesn’t say “robot-bears sketch.”
  • Never forget what comes before: “We’ll all either be working for him”: “The Italians have a saying, Lemon: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ And although they’ve never won a war or mass-produced a decent car, in this area they are correct.”

“Nerds!”: Ties to 30 Rock’s future, set aside for dummies who haven’t watched the whole show yet

  • Jack can’t always predict the future, but he wasn’t entirely off about Kenneth’s career trajectory: In season six, the page is promoted to a position within NBC’s Standards And Practices department, meaning Liz technically works for him (in that her show has to meet his bizarre standards of decency). That’s not the highest he’ll climb up the corporate ladder: As seen in the heart-wrenching epilogue of “Last Lunch,” an ageless Kenneth has ascended to the top position at the network.
  • From Pete’s list of Liz’s ex-boyfriends, we’re due to meet both “the guy who played Halo under the name ‘slutbanger’” and “the tall, gangly red-haired guy who played guitar all the time” in two weeks’ time.

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