Some commenters razzed me last week for giving the premiere of 30 Rock a C+ and the last episode of Saturday Night Live a C. Was I suggesting that modern-day Saturday Night Live was nearly as good as 30 Rock? Of course not. That would be fucking fucking insane. I judged each show by the wildly divergent expectations I have for them.
As one of the best, smartest, funniest shows on television, I have extraordinarily high standards for 30 Rock. For its first two years it operated on a higher evolutionary plane than ninety-five percent of television. It wasn’t just funny, it was laugh-out-loud, watch-three-times-back-to-back so you don’t miss anything, have Tracy Jordan’s lines tattooed on-your-forehead super-genius.
As for Saturday Night Live, it is what it is. I don’t expect anything more from it than an inspired sketch or two in a vast ninety-minute wasteland of bad ideas and DOA sketches. So a C episode of Saturday Night Live is about par for the course: not good, not bad, somewhere in between. A C+ episode of 30 Rock, on the other hand is a crushing disappointment.
30 Rock is still a very good show. I didn’t go from being a super-fan to a skeptic over the course of three episodes. But there was a pronounced drop in quality in its third season that has grown more extreme as the show has stumbled unsteadily into its fourth season.
I started watching the second episode of 30 Rock last week but stopped halfway through. Usually if I stopped two-thirds of the way through a screener with two 30 Rock episodes, it’d be a matter of delaying my gratification. In this instance, I postponing disappointment.
30 Rock’s second episode falls short for pretty much the exact same reasons Todd VanDerWerff mapped out in a perceptive blog post recently: tired storylines, an over-reliance on familiar faces to prop up weak gags and characters that are rapidly devolving into glib caricatures of themselves. This was especially true of Jenna. As Todd pointed out, she went from being the show’s ace in the hole to one of its weakest elements. Her desperation, shamelessness and opportunism have become one-note and rote. I went from thinking, “When will they finally give her something to do?” to hoping she perishes filming that werewolf movie. This season the writers have given her much more screen time and far less to do.
But my big problem with 30 Rock is that it isn’t anywhere near as fast or as funny as it used to be. Its blinding comic speed has slowed. It’s not unusual to wait and wait and wait for a funny line that never materializes. Ah, but let’s talk about the episode itself.
Liz finds herself the subject of widespread anger when her book Dealbreakers antagonizes half the male population of New York, including Tracy, who decides to move in with her in a twist that qualifies as Plot 137 in the Big Book of Sitcom Scenarios. In the past I’ve written about 30 Rock sometimes lazily recycling tropes while professing to spoof them. In this episode that meant lazily falling back on catchphrase soundbite humor instead of wryly commenting on it. That’s not quite a dealbreaker for me, but it does suggest the show is losing focus and slipping.
In the episode’s main plot, Devon Banks returns to even old scores with Jack in his new role as a functionary in the Obama administration. No one does wide-eyed, raspy-voiced, undeserved self-confidence like Will Arnett but, apart from a delightfully homoerotic face-off with Jack he wasn’t the instant laugh-getter he’s been in the past.
The rest of the episode felt frustratingly tossed-off, from Kenneth and then Tracy getting saddled with a bunch of puppies to Jack asking his employees to come up with just a single idea as good as the lightbulb that launched G.E on its way to microwave dominance. Well, that part actually was pretty funny and I did like the porn film that ended the episode.
I’ve been missing the Jack-Liz dynamic, which is the emotional core of the show, so it was nice to see them, in the parlance of Chasing Amy, “share a moment” at the very end of the episode when he got her back her retainer. If she had repaid the favor the way her porn star doppelganger did I would have bumped the episode up at least two or three grades. Sigh.
—Did they get the porn actress from Nailing Palin to play alternate universe lesbian Liz Lemon? Cause that would be a cool metatexual gag
—Still love 30 Rock. I hope they turn it around next week.