After half a season mostly spent touring the furthest reaches of distant galaxies, this week 30 Rock turned out an episode that was well within spitting distance of Spaceship Earth. It wasn't The Middle or anything, but it was pretty grounded, at least by the standards of recent 30 Rock episodes, That is to say, the actors seemed to be playing the characters they'd signed on to play all those years ago, instead of random accumulations of bizarre traits and assorted weirdness, and the surreal horror-movie imagery and elaborate mythologies for imaginary holidays were kept to a minimum. Even the preposterously over-famous guest stars—Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Patti LuPone—were playing actual roles, not performing campy little stunts or showing what good sports they are. Not that there weren't interruptions in what I, being a good sport myself, will call the "story," for satirical interludes. One of these was a clip from Jenna's cop-shop pilot Goodlooking, in which she played “Alexis Goodlooking, who was also good-looking, and my special ability was being good at looking for clues.” In the clip, Jenna stands over a dead body and barks out orders to the crime-scene technicians. “Maybe the perp's in the system,” she says, and then, turning broody, she adds, “unlike my husband's killer, who got away, and it haunts me.” It was funny, but it wasn't any more ridiculous than Unforgettable.
Jena slips back into character as the “tough but pretty” detective so that she can solve the mystery of who drank Pete's birthday bottle of scotch, which he'd been planning to share with the writing staff. (Tracy settled easily into the role of her unhelpful but game sidekick. His own qualifications for the post were established with a clip from one of those movies that inspired the sketch about a battle between two magical Negroes on this week's Key & Peele. Wearing a white wig and outlined against a sky the color of wino piss, he looked down at a little white boy and said, “America's kind of like this crabapple tree, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”) I had more fun watching Jane Krakowski tonight than I have in a while. Sure, it helped that she wasn't required to be joined at the hip to Will Forte, a man, who, to my possibly mistaken eyes, does for comedy what the Jonestown massacre did for Kool-Aid sales. But I also had the feeling that Krakowski really enjoyed the chance to do something different from acting like an unhinged, slutty narcissist and saying cringe-worthy things with a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes. A possible alternate explanation is that I just really enjoyed the chance to see her do something different.
Jenna actually does a solid job of cracking the case, not that it would have taxed the investigative abilities of Hercule Poirot, or for that matter, Inspector Clouseau. It's never hard to deduce who's probably responsible for a cruel, shameless act of outright theft when there are writers around. As Lutz explains, “We wanted booze, but we didn't want to hang out with Pete. It's the worst. he always brings out his guitar and sings. He's got one story, and it's about seeing Phil Donahue at a mall!” Fair but cruel, Jenna sentences the sticky-fingered writers to hang out with Pete, which gives Scott Adsit a chance to bring out his guitar and sing, just as Lutz had direly predicted. “And Phil Donahue's walking past Cinnabon,” he howls, to a melody lifted from “Piano Man.” “And he's making eye contact with me/ I can tell that he'll smile, and stay for a while/ And say, 'Pete, you're who I want to be!'” It's nice to see him so happy.
The episode wasn't all about crime and punishment. Love was given its due as well. We got another chapter in the story of Jack and Kenneth, which is unexpectedly shaping up as one of the great bro-mances of our time. (I guess somebody had to pick up the slack now that Barney has discovered sincere true love on How I Met Your Mother. He discovers it with a different woman every week, but still.) Still trying to find Kenneth a new job at the network, Jack has a brainstorm and hooks him up with Standards & Practices. Unsurprisingly, Kenneth takes to the role of censor like a buzzard to fresh roadkill and is soon happily tearing through scripts for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, excising offensive terms such as “Dick Wolf.”
The snake in the garden is an ambitious young shark who means to get up to the next rung on the career ladder by stepping on Kenneth's neck. Jack is quick to see what's going on and tries to warn Kenneth, but the innocent hick will have none of it. He thinks that the back-stabber is “the best friend I've ever had, tied with everyone I've ever known,” and delights in the nickname his new friend has given him: “Susan.” Jack's efforts to wise Kenneth up lead him to reflect on his own history of paranoia and subterfuge, which in turn leads to a reunion with the former colleague (Stanley Tucci) whom he ran out of the business back in 1985, by convincing him to perform “Monster Mash” at the company talent show, “knowing full well that Jack Welch is terrified of monsters.”
Tucci, who now publishes encyclopedias (and who has a honey of a physical gesture when, saying the word “encyclopedias,” he automatically extends his arms out to his sides, to suggest the density of a full set), insists that he holds no ill will. His life is good. “I own a certified, pre-owned Lexus, both my sons are magicians, and for my birthday, my wife got me tickets to the Broadway show Memphis.” The encounter shakes Jack up enough to get him wondering if he's really doing Kenneth a favor by trying to infect him with his own suspiciousness and guile, but the episode ends with the suggestion that it may already be too late to turn back.
This episode also featured the return of Susan Sarandon as Frank's girlfriend, who used to be his high school teacher, an ethical lapse that landed her in prison for a few years between dates. (In its day, her forbidden love had made her a figure of some public notoriety. “Johnny Carson, in his monologue, said I was looking at 20 years, but I'd probably be more attracted to 12. I mean, that's an okay joke, but it hurt!”) What occasioned her presence on the show was Frank telling his good Italian mama (Patti LuPone, who at one point bursts into Liz's office with a live chicken under one arm, eager to make her boy some soup) that he was dating Liz, to distract Ma from discovering that he and Sarandon were seeing each other again. It was arguably the most farfetched thing in the episode, yet also the most classically sitcommy thing seen on 30 Rock in recent memory.
It was, as late-night TV talk-show critic Susan Sarandon might put it, okay, but as the story worked itself out, it mostly served to underline how much Tina Fey has recently become the weak link in her own show. Having her become part of a steady, stable relationship hasn't done a lot for her character, and this week, shipping James Marsden off to Canada so that she can have her apartment free for Patti LuPone to barge into didn't amount to much either. Fey's plummiest moment came midway through, when, after LuPone tucked her in after work and plied her with vittles, she seemed to be warming up to the idea of being Frank's pretend lover just so that she could get the pampering that went with the job. It raised possibilities that, after the commercial break, were allowed to die on the vine.
In general, this season has not been kind to Liz Lemon. In some of the wilder episodes, Fey has basically discarded everything that's been established about her character, just so that she can do something wild enough to fit in, even if it means transforming herself into a psychotic bag lady. (It's as if she were coming up with ideas that would have made for killer roles for her to play in Saturday Night Live sketches and can't bear to let go of them.) When she comes down from these sprees, she seems to have lost some of her grip on the character, to the point that part of the joke of tonight's episode seemed to be how irrelevant Liz was to the proceedings, even when she was on. Frank and the women in his life even kept ordering her out of her apartment and out of her office. It was about as sitcommy a gag as you could imagine, though here it had a sadder subtext than I remember it ever having had before.