30 Rock: “Jack The Writer”/“Jack-Tor”
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30 Rock: “Jack The Writer”/“Jack-Tor”

Episode five is alive

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30 Rock

“Jack-Tor”

Season 1, Episode 5

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30 Rock

“Jack The Writer”

Season 1, Episode 4

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“Jack The Writer” (originally aired 11/1/2006)

In which not everyone wants to work in television…

A significant portion of “Jack The Writer” concerns the preparation of TGS With Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock’s way of expressing that even the rankest, most trivial, and/or most lethal jobs can have a hint of glamour—so long as they’re connected to television. But while Jack Donaghy entrenches himself in writers’ room culture and Kenneth performs an escalating series of menial jobs for Tracy, these stories are balanced out by a more down-to-earth approach to the Girlie Show business. When Liz tells her assistant that she should dress less provocatively if she wants to be taken seriously in TV, Cerie replies “I don’t actually want to work in television. Career-wise, I’m just going to marry rich and design handbags.”

Okay, so maybe “down-to-earth” never really applies on this show, but Cerie expresses a sentiment that grows evident as 30 Rock’s first season moves along: At its core, the series is more workplace comedy than showbiz satire. Its characters work in show business, but “Jack The Writer”’s first priority isn’t exposing and mocking the inner-workings of a major broadcaster. “Jack The Writer”’s first priority is workshopping the relationships between 30 Rock’s coworkers.

Appropriate for an episode in which Liz fears having to go back to “teaching improv to senior citizens,” “Jack The Writer” hinges on the high status/low status dynamic that’s one of the first tools taught to such improv students. Within their own spheres, Liz, Jack, and Tracy are all high-status characters: They order others around, their will is difficult to deny, and they exude a mystique of leadership, some more effortlessly than others. (Of course, one of the most quietly funny things about this half-hour is the amount of effort Six Sigma Jack has to put into being a leader.) The variety and the humor of “Jack The Writer” is entwined with the way those dynamics shift from scene to scene: Liz has the authority to declare a one-minute dance party, but can’t get Cerie to add more layers to her wardrobe. Tracy sends Kenneth on a nacho run to Yankee Stadium, but can’t face his wife on their anniversary. This is basic, low-degree-of-difficulty stuff, and 30 Rock hits its marks with most of it.

The trickier part, the flourish and the flash that separate the standard workplace show from the exceptional workplace show, is in Liz and Jack. It’s been curious re-watching these episodes to see the many ways 30 Rock suggests movement in its filmmaking choices—a walk-and-talk here, a pan across the writers’ room there—when the respective situations of the show’s main characters have all the momentum required. These are two people who were very comfortable in their old surroundings, thrust into a New Way of Doing Things. They will either learn to swim together or drown side-by-side, and that’s enough storytelling fuel to power the first six episodes (give or take) of this show. (For as much as the pilot fails as a representative episode of 30 Rock, it succeeds in being the first pages of fresh chapters in Liz’s and Jack’s lives.)

As such, “Jack The Writer” depicts what happens when they both play their hands too heavily: Liz orders Jack out of the writers’ room; Jack dresses Liz down in front of “the gentlemen from Fairfield.” At the end of the episode, Jack stays higher on the status ladder than Liz not necessarily because he’s the boss, but because he has years of experience in this sort of corporate brinksmanship. He’s the one who’s harnessed The Force; she’s the one who’s mucking about in the officer’s ranks of the Imperial Army. That idea is introduced in “Jack The Writer,” but because Robert Carlock’s script doesn’t put a bow on it—“I said we were friendly” feels more like an act break than a kicker—the episode ends with a lack of traditional TV resolution. Good for 30 Rock’s senses of momentum and adventurousness (and really good for watching “Jack The Writer” mid-binge—it’s a very Netflix-friendly ending), but I can see where viewers in 2006 might’ve been left scratching their heads.

And that’s where 30 Rock begins to show its true stripes: Individual jokes will always trump storytelling on this show, and “Jack The Writer” demonstrates how the comedic voice of Fey and her writers developed quicker than their ability to plot out the lives of the TGS staff. Four episodes in, and Tracy Jordan has already made one of his most important contributions to the TV lexicon: “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.” It’s astonishing how early in the show’s run that quote—or, in another example of “Jack The Writer”’s comic deft, the “Beep beep, ribby ribby” runner—pops up. They look like giant, show-defining moments in retrospect, but they’re practically baby steps compared to what lies ahead.

To that end, “Jack The Writer” serves as a reminder that 30 Rock’s satirical edge was often best served on a line-by-line, scene-by-scene basis. There are great, episode-long digs at the entertainment industry in the show’s future—“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001,” “TGS Hates Women”—but the title of “Jack The Writer” really only describes one chunk of this episode’s running length: the montage highlighting Jack’s underdeveloped sense of humor. (“And Brokaw says, ‘Just go, don’t look back.’ Now, I’m not a writer, but maybe there’s a skit in that” ) As a brief display of corporate meddling in artistic affairs, it’s brilliant; as the story of the entire episode, it could turn just as unfunny as anything Jack pitches in the room.

Perspective and satire and industry know-how define 30 Rock, but character and relationships sustain the show. There’s only so much of each that “Jack The Writer” can cover in 22 minutes—and even then, the abruptness of the final minutes suggests the balance is off. The magnetism of the spotlight and the pressures of fame have a heavier influence in coming episodes, but even then the primary focus is on a group of people learning to work with one another.

Stray observations:

  • Coming up this week on TGS With Tracy Jordan: “Jenna, set yourself for ‘Who Wants To Eat A Dictionary’”
  • The TGS writers need a funnier product name for Toofer’s cereal parody. It’s not Fruit Lupus.
  • The show already went to the “Dressed-up Liz” well of visual humor in the pilot, but it’s worth going to again for the weird, too-long sleeve on the “Dirty Diva” outfit seen in “Jack The Writer.” It’s a joke—obviously she’s wearing this as a joke!
  • “Nerds!”: When next we see Angie Jordan—in the Valentine’s Day-themed “Up All Night”—she’ll be Sherri Shepherd. Six Sigma, meanwhile, stays a constant in Jack’s life, leading to season three’s “Retreat To Move Forward” and the “Six Sigma Wheel Of Domination” that replaces a future NBC parent company’s preferred method of motivation: A poster of a kitten in spaghetti. Also, the TGS staff’s taste in mid-’00s hip-hop factors into the pre-credits tag of…

“Jack-Tor” (originally aired 11/16/2006)

In which Jack doesn’t not look into the camera…

Arrested Development’s three-season run ended roughly eight months before the debut of “Jack-Tor,” but the episode marks a serious torch-passing moment between the Bluth family and the TGS staff. Mitch Hurwitz’s Emmy-winning, critically beloved, little-seen comedy was the preeminent broadcast sitcom of the early ’00s, a show whose density of wit came alive on DVD (and made it a legend following its cancellation). 30 Rock was still fighting its way toward critical approval in November 2006, and its first Emmy nominations were several months away—but “Jack-Tor” would be the recipient of one such nomination, earning Robert Carlock a nod for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. (Tina Fey would receive the same honor for “Tracy Does Conan”; the first season as a whole would net 30 Rock’s inaugural Outstanding Comedy Series prize.)

But if anything about “Jack-Tor” marks 30 Rock as Arrested Development’s heir apparent, it’s not necessarily the amount of jokes the episode lands (thought that doesn’t hurt), and it’s not the shows’ shared casting of Jack McBrayer—it’s the meta humor. Self-awareness is not the most effective comedic tool for either series, but there aren’t many other shows that wield it as well as these two do. “Jack-Tor” demonstrates that with its running intrusions from the fine folks at Dr Pepper Snapple Group, whose involvement in a spoof of Jack’s product-integration initiative goes one step beyond Arrested Development’s endorsement of Burger King’s free-refill policies. (Everybody together now: “It’s a wonderful restaurant!” “It sure is.”) “Jack-Tor” and its Snapple jokes are the 2001 monolith of product-placement riffs; from this point on, it would never be good enough to merely wink in the direction of a TV comedy’s corporate underwriters.

Cerie only dates guys who drink Snapple. (Someone tell Aris.)

But there’s also that look that Alec Baldwin gives to the camera after Jack Donaghy is instructed specifically not to look into the camera. Episode five is alive, and it brings 30 Rock along with it into the land of the living. Having learned to make fun of itself, all of the parts that will make 30 Rock are nearly in place; the show has almost found its third heat.

“Jack-Tor” gets pretty damn close, though. It’s incredibly fleet for an episode running a “super-sized” 27 minutes, and Jenna’s return from her “Jack The Writer” absence emphasizes that speed. I’m not a huge fan of Jenna’s storyline in this episode—it makes sense that she’s still worried about being fired, but the early beats feel like a rehash of episodes one and two—but Jane Krakowski throws herself into it from the very first mention of “Muffin Top.” Listen to how crisply and quickly she delivers those lines, without losing any of the important details. “When I was dating that Persian record producer”; “dance-pop/techno hybrid”—there are worlds within these words, and the promise of a characters who’s a lot weirder than “conceited TV star.”

With five more minutes at its disposal, the episode can ease up, too, allowing the slow-rolling terror of Jack’s product-integration bloopers to sink in with Rake Effect-like results. And that’s parts two and three of “Jack-Tor”’s major contributions to 30 Rock: It shows that Jack is vulnerable and that Liz is really, really good at her job. “Jack The Writer” demonstrates that Jack Donaghy isn’t a 100 percent adversarial presence, and “Jack-Tor” goes on to show that he has insecurities just like anybody else on this show. The bloopers are an orchestra of humiliation for the character, and his late-night exchange with Liz on the TGS set brings that humiliation home. She catches him staring out a prop window for crying out loud.

“There’s something about performing that I can’t wrap my brain around,” Jack says, immediately after putting on a one-man show about machismo that involves bow-hunting polar bears and driving a rental car into the Hudson River “just to practice escaping.” (Good God, this is some entertainingly written television.) So much of Jack Donaghy—the Six Sigma stuff, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, touting his friendship with Jeb Bush—is a performance; his persona is as fake as the orgasmic moaning Jenna sneaks past Standards And Practices in “Muffin Top.” That’s another thing “Jack-Tor” has in common with Arrested Development: Both are preoccupied with fakery. Tracy pretends to be illiterate, Frank makes up a rumor about layoffs, Jenna pretends to be into Jack’s boss, “Jack’s boss” winds up being an actor pretending to be a GE exec for the purposes of fake product integration in a fake sketch on a fake TV program.

With all those put-ons, all that acknowledgment that we’re watching fictional people doing fictional things, you need something real. You need a solid working relationship like the one Liz and Jack have, the type with the proper amount of give-and-take that allows Lemon to tell Donaghy “nut up” and mean it. The importance of that scene—and to a lesser extent, the eye roll at Jack’s “sheer willpower” height adjustment—can’t be underestimated: This is a precedent-setting, status-shifting moment that gives Liz the upper hand and shows why she’s running her own show on network TV. The pep talk she gives a hyperventilating Jack is the type of thing you might assume Liz is capable of delivering, but it means so much more to see her (and Tina Fey) actually doing it. Like Krakowski at the top of the episode, she’s on a tear in that moment—it changes the way we’ll look at Liz for the rest of the series. It changes the way Jack sees her, too.

And “Jack-Tor” would fundamentally change the way 30 Rock operates. This is not the series at full strength—just wait until next week—but it is a scrappy episode with a unique POV and formidable comedic punch. It bravely tackles taboo in Tracy’s storyline (which opens up some tremendous opportunities for visual comedy), delivering some pretty harsh truths to Liz in the hour of her greatest triumph. Arrested Development felt like this from the very start, the rare TV sitcom with a pilot as good as any episode that would come after it. The case of 30 Rock is more typical in the genre, but “Jack-Tor”—and the episodes that follow in its wake—are anything but typical. But they are prime examples of the show that carried the torch for groundbreaking, gut-busting TV comedy into the next decade.

Stray observations:

  • This week on TGS With Tracy Jordan: “Jenna and Ghostface Killah to the stage, please, for ‘Muffin Top.’”
  • Another Arrested Development parallel: “Jack-Tor”’s school-play flashback gives Jack his very own Trial Of Captain Hook.
  • “Jack-Tor” also ends kind of abruptly, but the time-jump works much better than letting Jack’s sketch play into the credits. Besides, how else was the show going to get a naked Frank up on the roof?
  • Debate: Is “Muffin Top” the first great 30 Rock song? I can see people saying that the “Pam” theme from the pilot is catchier, but as a permanent part of the show’s score, I think it’s at an unfair advantage. As far as standalone songs in the Jenny Maroney catalogue, I think “Muffin Top” is the first to take the cake.
  • This week’s episodes doubles down on the Star Wars allusions: First Liz doesn’t want to be compared to the doomed Captain Needa, then Frank tells Jenna he heard about the pending layoffs from his friend in accounting, Lando Calrissian. (Bet he could find some room in the budget by unloading the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo over at Fox.)
  • “Nerds!”: Ghostface Killah will return in “The Source Awards.” The topic of Jack fucking up becomes its own recurring theme, peaking in season five’s “Reaganing.” I don’t have much love for the terms namesake, but its implication resonates with me on a day-to-day basis: No one, not even Jack Donaghy, gets through their day-to-day life without making a mistake. We are all product-integration blooper reels.

Next week: “Jack Meets Dennis,” “Tracy Does Conan,” and a little blue dude leads us into the promised land.

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