In tonight’s episode of 30 Rock, Rob Reiner appeared as himself. Only this time he was at a congressional hearing: as a congressman! How crazy is that? I mean, who could even envision the doughy, goofy guy who played Meatball ascending to the highest corridors of power?
The notion of Reiner running isn’t even particularly far-fetched. He’s a political animal and rumors of him running for office have been bandied about for years. It’s hard to tell exactly where the joke lies in having Rob Reiner play himself as a congressman. Is it because he describes himself as having merely dallied in television when we know otherwise? Does it lie in having him behave like a pompous, self-congratulatory limousine liberal? Or are we supposed to chuckle at the notion of him going on a Sex And the City walking tour and hitting Magnolia’s cupcakes along with a professional colleague?
Actually, that last bit was a little amusing, but it also felt easy and clumsy and tired. The whole episode did. It was misfiring on all cylinders. The satire was toothless, the playing strained and the whole enterprise reeked of mild desperation. And this is only the third episode.
"Let's Stay Together" found Jack squaring off against a grandstanding congresswoman played by Queen Latifah. While Reiner and his colleagues are worried about vertical integration and monopolies, Latifah uses the hearing as a springboard to address the lack of diversity on NBC.
In a panic, Jack makes Toofer co-Head Writer and has dot.com write a sensitive new show about the plight of working-class black men in America. The show dot.com has in mind sounds an awful lot like Good Times until it’s helpfully suggested that a talking dog might give the show more mainstream appeal. The joke paid off, a little, towards the very end, when Good Times alum John Amos is shown trudging his way through the revamped sitcom but, like just about everything else on the show, it felt easy and predicable. I know because I made a variation on the same joke tonight and I hold 30 Rock to much higher standards than I hold myself.
Liz immediately becomes jealous of Toofer’s newfound prestige and popularity. In a really, really painful scene, Liz bullies her way onto an African-American affairs program and stumblingly says all the wrong things while the regal host of the show looks on at her in restrained horror and indignation. This whole bit felt like a dim echo of the late-night public-affairs spoof Tim Meadows did on Saturday Night Live back in the day.
Kenneth, meanwhile, auditions to become part of NBC’s page program again, only to watch a singing, dancing oaf snag the gig. Kenneth then lets Jenna mold him into a queeny musical-comedy hack to no avail.
Yes, tonight’s episode had a golden opportunity to comment insightfully and hilariously about the tricky intersection of politics, power, race and privilege. Instead, it recycled jokes that were unfunny and overly familiar the first time around, like Queen Latifah’s congresswoman using the rumbling cadences of a Baptist preacher to lend an air of evangelical urgency and righteousness to even the most inane, mundane statements.
Oh well. This did follow two unusually strong episodes. Hopefully next week the show will rebound with a live episode. The stakes are high. They're working without a net. I expect nothing short of a smooth, incident-free show from seasoned professional, many with backgrounds in theater and improvisational comedy. By which I mean, oh shit, who knows what will happen? Shit is going to be crazy! They'll be swearing and fucking and tearing down sets and making incendiary political statements for sure. That or everything will go according to plan. One of the two.