It's a measure of how high 30 Rock set the bar for itself in its first season that an episode full of funny dialogue, droll gags, Jerry Seinfeld, and amusing ideas can still qualify as a disappointment. The show's left-field triumph at the Emmy Awards marked a de facto coronation for Tina Fey's brainchild as the "it" comedy of the moment. I imagine even folks in caves in Afghanistan are getting tired of seeing Tina Fey pop up in credit card ads and talk shows. Since it went on hiatus, the question has shifted from "Will it survive?" to "Is it really as good as everyone says it is?"
The burden of expectation weighs heavily on 30 Rock these days, which is dancing defiantly on the sad, bloated corpse of Studio 60, a show I feel strangely obligated to kick mercilessly now that it's officially dead. That may explain why this episode feels a little strained. The comedy's too broad, the post-modern flourishes feel a little too forced and knowing. (Gosh, did ya have to look into the camera while pimping Bee Movie Monsieur Seinfeld? I know that's the joke, but at one point does "ironically" pimping your movie in a hip, knowing way veer into unironically pimping said movie in a smug, annoying way?) The dramatic subtext was also a little too on-the-nose.
30 Rock is riding high, but its first show back finds pretty much all its characters at their worst. Good old Liz Lemon spends much of the episode gallivanting about in a wedding dress like a tragic spinster from a forgotten Tennessee Williams play, a phantom bride anticipating a wedding that might someday exist. Dizzy sex kitten Jenna Maroney's weight ballooned after steadily ingesting unholy amounts of pizza during her summer stint starring in Mystic Pizza: The Musical. Tracy Jordan is reeling from a divorce that cost him Grizz. (Thankfully he retained custody of Dot.com. It's tragic what divorce can do a man's entourage). Kenneth the Page is reduced to star-struck delirium by every visit to 30 Rock from special guest star Jerry Seinfeld, who is understandably enraged by Jack Donaghy's plan to digitally insert his image in NBC shows to pump up ratings.
The Seinfeld subplot is like much of today's episode: a great idea marred by wobbly execution. Though I did enjoy the scene where Liz Lemon, having been ordered to stall Seinfeld, consciously or unconsciously starts mimicking the gazillionaire's speech patterns. Seriously, what is the deal with every comedy professional in the world doing a Seinfeld impersonation? Who are the ad wizards who dreamed that up?
In my 30 Rock first season DVD review, I praised Liz Lemon as an oasis of sanity and stability in a sea of craziness. But this episode confirmed that she only seems sane compared to everyone around her. That cuts to the heart of my problem with this episode: there's too much broad wackiness and not enough straight men. How much less effective would Arrested Development have been if Jason Bateman were just as screwed up as the rest of his family? With Donaghy and Liz Lemon both coming apart at the seams, it fell upon Pete Hornberger to ground the show in common sense, but he was largely absent from this episode.
Jack spent much of the episode cowering in fear and hiding from Seinfeld, which seemed out of character: he's a lot funnier as a supremely confident master of the universe than as a pathetic crybaby. Lemon's anxieties about growing older without a husband or family lent a bittersweet subtext to the show's first season, but I really don't want 30 Rock to turn into a show about a neurotic single woman and her zany search for love in the big city. 30 Rock must resist Ally McBealification at any cost. If a dancing baby appears at any point this season, we'll know that all is lost.
Don't get me wrong: I still love 30 Rock and I sincerely hope it gets its groove back and tones down the wackiness next time out. But when you're capable of scoring fifty points on a regular basis, that twenty-five point game doesn't look quite so impressive anymore.
Grade: B- Stray observations: -I don't know why, but it makes me happy that Tracy Jordan always refers to his boss as Liz Lemon, never just Liz or Ms. Lemon. -Best subplot: Kenneth becoming Tracy's office wife. -Is it just me or did the show end abruptly?