A friend of mine was recently in a movie theater where a trailer of Where The Wild Things Are played. At the end of the trailer an older gentleman sitting behind him scoffed very loudly: “Boy, that looks like it’ll do great—in Brooklyn”. The implication was clear: it was the kind of twee, artsy-fartsy highbrow fare that appeals only to McSweeneys subscribers, American Apparel models, cappuccino-sippers and masochistic folks who actually look forward to NPR pledge drives.
Oh, sure, Brooklyn might technically be in New York, one of God’s United States, but its inhabitants aren’t really red-blooded, NASCAR-watching, Larry The Cable Guy-loving, flag-waving Americans like the fine folks of the heartland. They’re Canadians at best. Pot-smoking, universal health care-crazed, war-avoiding Canadians. If Peoria is the quintessential American town then Brooklyn is the home of the enemy within, cultural elitists who look down their noses at the simple people what make our country great.
In that respect, 30 Rock is the ultimate show that does great—in Brooklyn. It’s beloved by defiantly un-American types like television critics, Bust readers, people who chuckle at New Yorker cartoons and A.V Club writers and commenters. I’m a third generation Chicagoan. Then again, I was just part of something called the Heeb 100 so I am, metaphorically at least, a Brooklynite (guess where Heeb’s offices can be found?). All Jews are spiritually citizens of Israel and Brooklyn.
When 30 Rock was nominated for 22 Emmys I had the same response I did when President Obama won the Nobel Prize. I’m a shameless fan and even I found such accolades comically excessive, especially considering the third season of 30 Rock was easily its weakest. It was still fucking funny as shit, but it was starting to show signs of creative fatigue, if not outright exhaustion. Yet I predict it will win the first Nobel Prize given a television show next year.
I would love to be able to report that 30 Rock bounces right back with the first episode of its feverishly anticipated fourth season but the show falls victim to the debut curse. The first episode of each season of 30 Rock tends to be the weakest. That seems to be the case this time around. It feels a little tired and worn and the abundance of post-modern gags and habitual tearing down of the fourth wall proves worrisome.
The meta-gags begin with Jack Donaghy addressing the camera directly—not for the last time—and welcoming everyone to Season Four. That’s the Season Four Asian fusion restaurant of course, where the 30 Rock gang enjoys Cheesy Blasters, a hot dog/pizza combination that’s the most popular foodstuff outside New York.
Jack then explains that NBC is struggling because it’s lost touch with the heartland, with “real America”. He thinks Tracy and Jenna have lost touch with their roots, with the common man, with Joe Sixpack. This suggestions sends Tracy Jordan into an existential crisis. “Have I lost touch with my roots? I better talk to Rabbi Schmuley about this” Jordan reasons with just the right note of stone-faced solemnity (I especially appreciated this gag, as I just got Rabbi Schmuley’s book of interviews with his spiritual protégé, Michael Jackson).
Jenna volunteers to go Country to appease the mouth-breathing dullards in the flyover states. Jack loves the idea. “We’ll trick those race car-loving wide loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!” Jack enthuses joyously in one of many clever lines that feel just a little too on-the-nose. Remember last year, when everyone forgot about Girly Show cast-member Josh, especially 30 Rock writers and fans? Then you’ll appreciate numerous winking references to Josh’s incredible forgetability and Josh quitting in protest. Are insanely talented writers from the only five boroughs that matter composing 30 Rock or are they letting internet message boards determine its future?
The big problem with tonight’s episode is that none of its four plot threads felt satisfying. A thread in which Tracy Jordan decides to befriend normal people and leave his bubble of celebrity and super-wealth got off to an encouraging start and inspired some of the show’s sharpest gags, like Tracy trying to bond with a custodian from Brooklyn by mincing, “My dear friend Moby opened a teahouse in Park Slope. Does he brew you? Hey Rollie, do you ever lose your remote control and then your wife starts getting all mad because the roof won’t close and the bed that’s in the shape of your face is getting rained on?” but quickly devolves into sloppy riffing and ad-libbing.
In an even less promising thread, Kenneth The Page accidentally discovers Jack’s ginormous bonus and leads a page strike to get overtime compensation. Kenneth was sorely miscast in the role of a lefty union agitator and Jack was reduced to a sneering, oily villain. Jack’s a great character because he makes it so goddamned fun to root for the bad guy but tonight he came off like a typical heel.
In a thread that invoked traumatic childhood memories of Three’s Company, Liz and Pete are asked to scour comedy clubs to find a new cast-member for The Girly Show that will appeal to non-Brooklynites and try to keep their task a secret from their insecure employees. In the episode’s final subplot, Jenna throws herself into her new country persona. I’ve always thought of Jenna as 30 Rock’s secret weapon but this was one “Jenna sure is a desperate, shameless kook! She’ll do anything to advance her career!” conceit too many.
30 Rock has set the bar so high that it can deliver five big laughs and a series of chuckles and still qualify as a disappointment. It’s hard not to compare 30 Rock and The Office despite being very different shows. 30 Rock has historically been funnier and faster while The Office has more emotional depth. We laugh at Jack and Jenna and Tracy but we feel for Jim and Pam and Michael. In its fourth season, 30 Rock doesn’t really feel like it’s about anything. It’s a well-tooled laugh delivery system but when the laughs don’t materialize it can feel awfully thin and superficial, all dazzling surface wit with nothing underneath.
Tonight was not a terrible episode but when an exhausted and defeated Liz grouses, “Is this really our first week back?” it rings way too true. Oh well. Maybe this episode will do great—in Brooklyn.
—“Another actor? They have so many feelings and opinions!”
—“Are you a large child or a small adult?”
—“Are you a pre-op Centaurian?”
—“I’ll give you a New York minute. That’s seven seconds.”
—What did you guys think of the final lines of dialogue? I thought it was funny and trenchant and way too on the nose. I do like how incredibly Satanic Jack Donaghy looks, though.