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30 Rock: "College"

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30 Rock

"College"

Season 5, Episode 8

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Tonight’s episode of 30 Rock was all about embracing your existential identity and letting go of long-cherished self-delusions. Jack was forced to let go of his self-perception as the king of microwaves, while Liz was forced to let go of her dream of being popular and cool instead of grudgingly tolerated. 

Jack’s past comes back to haunt him when he discovers he’s the voice of a computer program that delivers English words in the most awesome, raspy, rasptastically awesome manner imaginable. He recorded apparently the entire dictionary while still a struggling student to help pay for college with the understanding that his work would only be used to provide perfect pronunciations of words in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Alas, that nuclear holocaust never happened, tragically.

It was, in other words, a very mid-80s kind of idea, as evidenced by Jack looking admiringly at an image of himself as a fresh-faced young executive on the cover of a 1985 annual report and noting wistfully that there was a wheelbarrow full of cocaine just out of frame. Jack has been a master of the universe so long that it can be easy to forget his hardscrabble roots. But they help humanize him (he is forever on the verge of being just a little too perfect) and provide an endless source for killer one liners.

It is a testament to Baldwin’s gifts as a dramatic and comic actor that he was able to glean both laughs and pathos out of fuzzy memories of cleaning the floor of a monkey lab where the smell didn’t get to him quite as much as “the crudely scrawled notes of 'Help me.'"

Jack was too busy working to experience a proper college experience (that is, drinking too much, taking too many drugs and having sex with all the wrong people) and he misses that full-scale immersion into wanton decadence acutely. Parents are often keen to “protect” their collegiate children from, well, drinking too much, taking too many drugs and having sex with all the wrong people when those experiences can be healthy, or at least healthily unhealthy. People who went through their college years, say, writing for the entertainment section of a popular satirical newspaper rather than doing keg-stands and passing out in unexpected places consequently miss the stereotypical college decadence they never experienced. NBC executives probably do as well.

Donaghy channels his misplaced nostalgia into trying to undermine a microwave department that seems to be doing quite without him. This was the source of some of the better jokes about Hinduism I’ve seen on a network sitcom this week.

Jack and Lemon both had an awful lot to prove this week. Liz attempted, unsuccessfully, to prove that the several days of popularity she experienced in college weren’t a fluke by using her winnings in a staff lottery to buy everyone drinks. Alas, Liz discovers that her popularity was purely situational; it wasn’t Liz’s daffy schoolmarm persona that her coworkers responded to so much as the siren song of free booze.

In a rare bit of wisdom, Jenna disabuses Liz of her delusions of coolness and lets her know that existentially, at least, she’ll always be an RA, not a cheerleader. And that’s perfectly OK. We need RAs and schoolteachers and geeks. It takes all kinds.

Beyond being one of the funniest episodes in recent memory, tonight ended on a lovely and appropriate note, with Jack, Pete and Liz all experiencing at least a tiny little taste of what college could have been like for them. Because heaven knows nostalgia has place, but there’s also certainly something to be said for growing up and moving on.

 Stray Observations:

  • "Your boos are not scaring me. I know that most of you aren't ghosts."
  • "Lesbian Frankenstein wants ... her ... shoes ... back"
  • "And a G.E woman for one week of corporate espionage on Revlon."
  • "Don't worry about getting to your point. I am going to live forever."
  • “That is actually MY thoughtful window staring place." 
Filed Under: TV, 30 Rock

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