I’ve had my problems with 30 Rock this year, mostly revolving around how its wackiness is overwhelming all of its other good qualities. Unfortunately, a two-part episode that revolves around the elaborate meta-joke of a TV movie within the show within the show with Billy Baldwin playing an actor playing Jack Donaghy isn’t a sign that 30 Rock has decided to swim back in from the deep end. Certainly not when you have subplots like Jenna trying to out-parody a “Weird Al” parody of her song, or Tracy Jordan going off his meds and screaming, “We’re in a show within a show! My real name is Tracy Morgan!”
I have to give props to “Grandmentor” and “Kidnapped By Danger” for being, at times, absolutely bonkers. But, like many a super-sized sitcom episode, its main plot suffers from being drawn out over 44 minutes, and a lot of the subplots feel like padding more than anything else. The successful-joke-per-minute ratio of 30 Rock is still pretty high, and I got quite a few laughs out of a lot of the random gags, from “Korean freeze ray!” to the multiple taglines for Pride Bladder Control Pads (“have a private sewer in your pants”), but the episodes also served as a glaring example of how the show is struggling to make the onscreen insanity at all relatable.
At first, it seemed like the introduction of Hazel (Kristen Schaal) was geared for that, as the new page was initially baffled by all the wackiness unfolding before her, and correctly identified Liz as the closest thing to a normal role model among the ruins. But Hazel has since been written inconsistently, and for “Grandmentor,” her biggest episode yet (perhaps her last?), her main attribute became the same as so many other recurring 30 Rock characters: she’s insane. She seems to have sexual fantasies about everyone, she takes Tracy off her meds and has the New York Post take a picture of her foot in his mouth, and she dates a terrifying Eastern European gangster type called Ramzig who says things like “Where is toilet pail? Razmig must make mud.”
Liz takes Hazel on as a mentee (making Jack the titular grandmentor) and seems only somewhat aware of how crazy she is. Jack’s advice to let her fail so she can learn from her mistakes might make sense with a vaguely normal person, but Hazel is the furthest thing from normal. So it’s especially weird when Liz’s approach seemingly works, with Hazel acting normally by the end of the episode. Is this some final, grand meta-joke, or is it supposed to signal that Hazel started out ordinary, and just went crazy during her short arc on the show? Either way, it’s difficult to really care—Schaal was smart casting in theory, but her scenes never fit in.
Kenneth was unsurprisingly mixed up in the Hazel plotline as well, and weirdly ended up being the best part of it—his symbiotic bond with Tracy hasn’t been explored in a while, and it’s actually one of the strongest character tropes for Kenneth. To get back in Tracy’s good graces, Kenneth had to quit his NBC job, which will probably end up resetting him as a page. I’d be more disappointed if the show had been doing good work with Kenneth as a junior executive, but really, the excuses to shoehorn him into plots were getting more and more tiresome, so it’s probably best to just have him back as a page.
Before that happens, though, we’re going to enjoy him as a janitor for a little while, since that’s the only job he can get in the building. Given how nutty everything was in this two-parter, I was surprised we didn’t delve more into the janitor world to find out how crazy and twisted it is, like every other department at NBC. Instead, we got typical Kenneth material where he smiles through menial labor and his life going down the drain, for one big payoff joke when Jack asks him how he does it. “Well, I’ll tell you my secret, sir. I lie to myself. Every morning, when I wake up, I say everything’s going to be okay, but I’m lying, and I don’t know how much longer I can do it,” he says. It’s another meta-joke in an episode filled with them, and it works about as well as any—good for a brief knowing laugh, but maybe not worth it in the long run.
The ultimate meta-joke is Kidnapped By Danger, the made-for-TV movie Jack commissions, Liz writes, and Jenna stars in about the kidnapping of Avery Jessup. At first, I thought we’d get a 30 Rock spoof of another subgenre of cable trash, like Queen Of Jordan last year. But while we do get a brief glimpse at the movie (say it with me again—“Korean freeze ray!”) the episode plunders for every self-referential joke it can dig up, including the ultimate gag of Billy Baldwin playing Jack in the movie and managing to charm Diana Jessup (Mary Steenburgen) enough to keep Jack away from her.
Billy Baldwin’s impression of his brother is funny enough (although I wonder how Billy sees it) but that wasn’t all. Cynthia Nixon popped up to spoof Julianne Moore’s performance from season four, asking Liz if she was hitting the Boston accent too hard. “Nope, that’s how people from Boston sound to me!”
Even better, Jenna writes and performs a song for the movie and it’s instantly parodied by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who, as we all know, can take almost any title and turn it into a food gag (For instance, “Sussudio” became “Soup Supio”). Now, I know I’m writing a review that should be in the hands of Nathan Rabin, so I have to say that having “Weird Al” on the show was great and everything “Weird Al” does is hilarious. Luckily, I don’t have to pretend on that account—if anything, I could have gone for more “Weird Al” and less Jenna trying to outfox him, but I’ll take what I can get.
The concept of Liz writing a truthful version of Avery and Jack’s relationship—and how it gets to Jack—is a strong one and just about managed to tether this whole insane episode to reality. Even Kenneth’s little moment of honesty tied in—Jack realizes that lying to yourself isn’t always a bad idea. But the hour could have done with more of that and less of the inane sideplots. I’m especially disinterested in Jack’s sexual fascination with Diana, which was already stretched thin in her last appearance.
30 Rock used to be a show that could have its cake and eat it too—cram in as many inside-baseball TV production gags as you want, the characters’ relationships were strong enough to keep things grounded. But I just don’t know if you can say that anymore. I laughed at the final joke of “Kidnapped By Danger,” where Liz demands her name come up first in the credits and Jack calls her an egomaniac (cut to: “Executive Producer Lorne Michaels”). I laughed at a lot of the show’s jokes this week. But I don’t think I really care anymore.
- Jack is picking softer-hued ties. “I thought you said a man should never wear pastel unless he’s a black guy on Easter.”
- Hazel can’t stand Kenneth getting on her case. “What’s your problem?” “Oh, my. Well, my parents were technically brothers… ”
- Liz sneaks a Krang reference in by banning it from the writing room. “No one knows who Krang is, it would be a waste of time to talk about Krang on television. NO. MORE. KRANG.”
- Jack tells Wolf Blitzer to air more about Avery’s kidnapping. “Or I’ll tell everyone your real name, Steel Hammerhands! Hello? Steel? Mr. Hammerhands?”
- Jenna’s friends with someone in casting. “Not so much friends as I have a magnet that can scramble her pacemaker.”
- Liz’s routine at the Apollo (for which she was chased into the river) was beautiful.
- Liz is going to be Mitt Rommummy for Halloween. “Why wouldn’t you be Mitt Zombie?” “Because I’m an idiot! God, think for a second, Liz! Why would you buy all that gauze?”
- Jack thinks Liz can’t write romance. “You wouldn’t say that if you read my Mythbusters fan fiction, it is sexy.”
- Diana did get in one good jab. “I’m glad to see the endgame of feminism is women dressing like Dennis the Menace at work.”
- “Our love is off the charts, Kemosabe!”