Sometimes when you’ve been awake a very, very long time, you get a weird burst of crazy energy. You don’t really make a lot of sense, and your thinking is fuzzy, and you make questionable decisions, possibly involving Ebay purchases and/or emails or texts to ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, and you really just need to get some goddamn sleep and let your mind recharge and refresh.
That’s what “Nothing To Lose,” tonight’s episode of 30 Rock felt like. The show has been on the air forever. Exhaustion set in a while ago, yet the series carries on all the same. “Nothing To Lose” consequently possesses the strange quality of being at once tired and full of strained, artificial energy.
It is an episode almost entirely devoid of plausible human behavior or genuine emotion, a wacky pure joke machine that, like too much of this season, misfires the vast majority of the time. There were a few bright moments and a few funny lines, but there was nowhere near enough to negate the overwhelming sense of desperation and exhaustion hanging over the show. When a comedy once rightfully hailed as groundbreaking, dazzlingly witty, and lightning-fast is reduced to trotting out Webster, Lorena Bobbitt, and Lyle Menendez jokes, it’s time for it to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ponder how much longer it wants to continue to travel down a path of diminishing returns.
“Nothing To Lose” opens with Liz bragging about how she totally nailed an employee self-evaluation where she wrote that her greatest weakness is her humility. That groaner unfortunately set the tone for the show. Honestly, if a show is going to go this big and broad and wacky, if it’s going to feature not one but two separate sequences where characters spontaneously break out into song, then why the hell not add a laugh track? For that matter, why the hell not add wacky sound effects? Heaven knows a well-timed rim-shot, slide-whistle or sad trombone would not have felt out of place tonight.
On Jenna’s self-evaluation, the sentient tsunami of self-absorption breaks down and, in a drugged-up haze, finally concedes what has been obvious all along: that underneath her seemingly bottomless self-regard and equally endless supply of Mickey Rourke sex jokes lies enormous self-hatred. Jenna thinks, not without reason, that she’s the worst person she knows, something that fills even a woman as vaguely sociopathic as herself with something resembling shame. On a different show, this revelation might spur moments of genuine self-reflection or pathos. It might be cause for Jenna to grow as a character or as a human being.
That’s not the kind of show 30 Rock is at this point. At this juncture, 30 Rock is the kind of show that's less interested in exploring Jenna’s self-loathing depths in even the most perfunctory manner than it is in putting her in blue make-up for the sake of a Smurfs joke—Jenna is so dumb and naive that she believes Frank when he pretends to be Christopher Nolan over the phone and asks her to do a screen test for a live-action sequel to The Smurfs he’s filming—that was more desperate and sad than funny. This leads to a prank war between Jenna and the writers, centering around Lutz’s low self-esteem and Jenna’s belief that Lutz is too unimportant and insignificant to prank that, honestly, is much too convoluted to go into but fruitless and tired all the same, as plots involving Jenna and the writers tend to be.
When Jack sees that Pete has written that he sees himself in the same position he currently holds at NBC in five years on his self-evaluation, the executive decides to use his mentoring skills and alpha-male swagger to teach Pete to be a man instead of a sniveling little worm. Pete used to be one of the show’s more realistic and well-rounded characters. His relationship with Liz used to possess some depth and warmth. These days, however, Pete is pretty much like every other character on the show: a crazy loser who says and does whatever wacky, borderline nonsensical thing a random, disconnected joke or pop-culture reference requires at the moment.
Pete has devolved into a slightly less pathetic version of Lutz. His pairing with Jack felt arbitrary and artificial, and even the preternatural comic chops and God-like voice of Alec Baldwin could not breathe life into tired gags about Jack thinking George W. Bush was the best president ever.
Ah, but we haven’t even gotten to the most cartoonish plot of the episode. That would be a crazy thread involving Tracy—who, for the sake of the episode at least, has no sense of smell because he shoved a ring up his nose as a child—regaining his olfactory senses after a ring is removed from his nose and beginning to look up to Liz as a weird quasi-father figure because she smells just like his father used to before he said he was going out for cigarettes and heroin—the one laugh-out-loud moment of the episode—and, perhaps not surprisingly, never returned home.
This subplot would feel pretty dire even if it didn’t eerily recall—some might even say blatantly rip off—the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes much smarter after a crayon is removed from his brain, radically altering his personality and the lives of his family in the process. The borrowing would be forgivable if the subplot was funny or revealed something new or interesting about Tracy, but it wasn’t and it didn’t. Instead, it merely illustrated that 30 Rock isn’t just content to mercilessly cannibalize itself and its much more distinguished past these days: It’s willing to steal from the classics as well.
- That line about Sorkinesque repartee felt like kicking a dead horse at this point. Christ, even I've forgotten about Studio 60 and I'm fucking obsessed with that show.
- That "Commentary" thing was a commentary on the show's lack of social commentary, no? How pointlessly meta!
- I did like the line about Jack potentially being six feet under "in the subterranean paradise we built to escape the poor" five years from now. So, you know, it's got that going for it.