Hey, 30 Rock fans: Nathan’s out this week, possibly negotiating new terms with his Trinidadian nurse. So you’re stuck with me instead. Don’t worry: If all goes well, it’ll hurt much less than getting hit in the face by a bird while riding a roller coaster.
Overall, season five has shown a strong resurgence for the show creatively. But there have been times in which the vast array of characters in this universe have to fight for screentime, giving certain storylines less than optimal time to really make an impact. Shows like Modern Family also have this problem, where narrative often takes a backseat to ensuring that everyone gets some facetime. Other than Liz/Jack, I consider every other character completely optional on a week-in, week-out basis. If they show up and are funny, great. But if someone shows up out of seeming obligation from an ego or contract perspective, then those episodes tend to fall flat.
“It’s Never Too Late For Now” holstered one of its main characters (Tracy) for the week, under the guise of him being in Africa. (Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a post-credits segment a la the one Community did for Betty White, showing what mischief he managed to get into while there.) Removing him from the equation for the week didn’t reduce the overall number of plots: We still had the A story with Liz’s night out, the B story of Jack’s negotiations with Liddy’s nurse, and the C story with Pete and Frank forming a band. While the B story eventually tied into Jack’s negotiations with Kabletown, it’s the way in which “Too Late” united plots A and C that made this episode one of the season’s strongest.
In terms of the NBC three-hour block of comedy, 30 Rock is probably the series people think of least when words like “heartwarming” and “emotional” are mentioned The bond between Jack and Liz is strong, to be sure, but the show eschews sentiment as a general rule, leaving shows like Community and Parks and Recreation (and, to some extent, The Office) to handle that type of load. But Liz’s Hercule Poirot impression in Jack’s office is not only a payoff to her brief time as a would-be spinster in the wake of her break-up with Carol, but also one of the show’s few instances of showing just how much the staff cares for their beleaguered boss.
Now, granted, this type of gooey moment need not appear from now on. In fact, it wouldn’t be 30 Rock if it did. But it’s still nice to have the occasional episode in which people in this universe act in ways that are recognizably human. Having Tracy and Jenna fight over a single sweatshirt for the course of an episode certainly fits into this show’s reality, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good television. And if all this elaborate planning and subterfuge had been deployed upon, say, Kenneth, then the entire episode would have felt like a giant game of Mouse Trap. Instead, it turned into a love letter for the seemingly loveless Liz Lemon. And since most 30 Rock fans are in the tank for Tina Fey, this is the type of elaborate ruse that ends not in malarkey but satisfaction.
After all, for Liz to be continually defeated by life would destroy the fundamental, if sometimes misplaced, optimism of her character. It would have been quite easy for the show to pull the football that was her night with Anders away from her, leaving her more bitter than before. But the woman who can find fault in anything for once accepted the well-intentioned deception as a sign of compassion, not mockery. Her compatriots at TGS may frown upon her choice of alcoholic beverage, but they don’t disrespect her fundamentally as a person. As such, future mockery of her can be seen as a family member mocking another. (One can easily imagine Sue picking a real fight in a club with anyone that dared mock Liz’s Chip Hair Clip.)
It’s a small shift and potentially an unnecessary one for those that want to keep things like “sympathy” out of their 30 Rock. But acerbic quips and generally destructive behavior, while amusing, can also be corrosive after a point. The show tends to function best as a comedy of the absurd, not a comedy of the acidic. That’s why Jack can take lessons learned from his failed negotiations with Sheri, bust out a Trinidadian accent in his subsequent dealings with Kabletown, and not have it feel out of place. What Jack does isn’t mocking an accent so much as co-opting a superior strategy. (Compare this with him role-playing as Tracy’s father a few seasons ago.) It’s ridiculous but also perfectly in line with Jack’s ethos. So, too, does Pete’s past involvement with Loverboy make internal logic: As a character that continually bemoans the life decisions that brought him to this point, it only stands to reason that he went from singing “Working For The Weekend” to actually putting on a show that airs on the weekend.
But in the end, those two plots simply buttressed Liz’s journey from cat-owning, depressed, large-font book reading woman to someone that might be alone romantically, but is at least surrounded by those willing to stage an entire reality in order to give her one night of bliss. And for her to see that, and even submit to it temporarily with eyes wide open, shows how this overly pragmatic, overly cynical realist recognizes that life isn’t just what you keep closely guarded in your fannypack.
- Not only did the show entirely omit Tracy, but it essentially sidelined Kenneth as well. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the show flowed much better without the latter around.
- Apparently, all single women know Jethro Gibbs is the lead on NCIS.
- The going rate for a headstone? The approximate cost of a honeymoon. Financial planning, courtesy of 30 Rock.
- If you’re into spanking, apparently business school is the place for you.
- Dear Eric Roberts: Apparently the show wants you to guest star at some point in the near future.
- You can have your fancy nightclubs. I’ll be over here with Liz in the hippest odeon in town.
- “Look, I can fit Emily Dickinson’s whole head in my mouth!”
- “I hope there was enough shark meat in the fridge for one of your sandwiches.”
- “I’ve been taking these new Czechoslovakian organ slimming pills. They contain a little bit of meth, which is something my body needs anyway!”
- “Other than a fondness for Avery’s breasts, we have nothing in common.”
- “I didn’t give up when Eric Roberts abandoned me the desert, and I won’t give up now!”
- “I like my tampons to be cold!”
- “I see you’re drinking that Scotch NBC sent us when we came in third.”
- “How does one lose one’s license out of a malfunction-proof Velcro Phillies sports wallet?”
- “The color’s actually called Grandfather’s Shoe.”
- “My heart’s pounding like I’m watching Oprah’s farewell season!”
- “It’s white wine, ice cubes, and Sprite. She calls it…Funky Juice.”
- “He certainly wasn’t a Swiss prostitute that Martha Stewart recommended to me.”