B+

30 Rock: "Sun Tea"

Hello, 30 Rockers! My name is Steve, and I’ll be covering the show tonight for The T.V. Club. I realize coming here and getting me rather than Nathan Rabin is like tuning in to Pardon The Interruption for the entertaining repartee of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and instead seeing the fat, red faces of substitute hosts Dan LeBatard and Bob Ryan. (Sadly, this won’t be the only sports-related metaphor I use tonight.) But I’m super duper thrilled to be here. I haven’t been totally on board with The A.V. Club’s criticisms of 30 Rock of late, and I’ve been dying for a soapbox to climb on so I can offer a rebuttal.

Basically, my esteemed colleagues Mr. Rabin and Todd VanDerWerff (who astutely summed up what’s wrong with 30 Rock in this blog) have asserted that 30 Rock 1) isn’t as funny as it used to be and 2) sacrifices character development and coherent storytelling at the altar of non-stop gags and unrepentant wackiness. While I bristled when VanDerWerff wrote about 30 Rock’s “dangerous decline” (and gagged when he said it’s “in danger of becoming a slightly funnier Will & Grace) I can’t really disagree with points 1) and 2). I just don’t think 1) is true because of 2). To me 30 Rock is like a homerun hitter who plays shitty defense and doesn’t run out groundballs. As long as he hits 50 jacks and drives in 120 RBIs every year, nobody complains about a slugger always missing the cutoff man from leftfield. But as soon as he falls into a slump, his other weaknesses become an issue. 30 Rock might not be the best hitter in NBC’s Thursday night line-up at the moment—my vote goes to Parks And Recreation, though I can’t speak for John Krasinski Smirks At The Camera While Steve Carell Acts Like An Obnoxious Dickhead, since I stopped watching that show a few seasons ago. But the problem with 30 Rock isn’t the constant gags—it’s that the show isn’t hitting them out of the park as consistently as it once did. The remedy to this is not to suddenly take greater interest in what Frank does when he’s not at work, or the surprisingly non-moronic sides of Jenna’s personality. Sometimes 30 Rock just needs funnier gags.

It seems obvious that critics hold 30 Rock to a higher, somewhat unfair standard, and occasionally episodes are being punished for not being stone classics every week. Even chronic dislikers of 30 Rock’s current season concede that, at its worst, it’s still a solid and entertaining show, and I’d argue that 30 Rock has been funnier at times than we’ve given it credit for. (I’m sorry, Leonard, but there’s no way the “Stone Mountain” episode—one of the funnier eps of the season—warranted a lowly C.) I’m just saying that, maybe, we should hold off on the dangerous decline talk for now. At the risk of sounding overly protective of a corporate enterprise I have no personal stake in, 30 Rock has stayed on the air this long thanks mostly to critical goodwill, and I fear that all the harrumphing of late might squash the only support the show has, especially considering how quickly “worst season ever!” opinion seems to becoming “worst season ever!” fact among TV scribblers with most of season four still to come.

Wow, did I lose track of tonight’s episode? I think I picked a good week to launch a 30 Rock defense, because “Sun Tea” was one of the funniest and most enjoyable episodes of the season. The new cast member and Dealbreakers storylines were set aside in favor of an A story about Liz conniving to convince her upstairs neighbor to move out of his spacious apartment so she can buy both units and turn it into a super-condo. She gets the idea from Jack, who tells her that “with Manhattan real estate, there are no rules. It’s like checking in at an Italian airport.”

When the neighbor suggests that Liz move in with him, she agrees even though she doesn’t really like him. (“He doesn’t have a TV and he wears political T-shirts.”) Jenna suggests that she play the drama queen card to drive him away. After that fails—the neighbor is gay, and like Jenna says drama is like gay guy Gatorade—Tracy has Dot Com pose as her crazy black boyfriend, who “acts angry like Warren Moon must’ve felt in 1995.” (That doesn’t work either, because he’s a gay cop.) Liz eventually gets the neighbor to hit the bricks by utilizing a variation on Frank’s “Sun Tea” method, which basically just means urinating in a flower vase. Once again, Tina Fey has de-glamorized herself, and yet remains oh-so-desirable.

Clearly, this storyline was just a string of craaazy jokes. But they were amusing to laugh-out-loud jokes. And, c’mon, how many other sitcoms tie quips to Italian airport and Warren Moon references? That kind of resourcefulness—and fearlessness in the face of probable blank stares from non-travelers and non-Houston Oilers fans—deserves some props, no?

In the B story, Jack is inspired to get a vasectomy after his hero Don Geiss is sued by his son. The wisdom of this decision is confirmed by Tracy Jr., who argues that going the snip-snip route is the smart way to go in case “a girl tries to trap you like Nicole tried to do me on the band trip.” But Tracy Jr. is also the one that gets Jack to reconsider after he’s moved by the little SOB’s school essay about the awesomeness of his strip club-slumming pops. Tracy also decides against getting a vasectomy after a half-cooked Cosby Show hallucination that still included a hilarious exchange between Tracy and Tracy Jr.: “Who are Rudy and Vanessa?” “Your adorable sister and your sister!”

Detractors of 30 Rock’s season four could find plenty of stuff not to like about “Sun Tea”— once again, the bare bones storylines were little more than excuses to let forth a torrent of rapid-fire, screwball-style dialogue, and Liz or Jack never seemed to have real emotional stakes in their ridiculous misadventures. But the zingers hit the mark more often than not, and if 30 Rock has been engineered to be a gag machine, perhaps it’s best to appreciate it for what it is, especially when it hums along as well as it did tonight.

Grade: B+

Stray observations

 —“Holding up one finger to get someone to stop talking? He invented that.”

 —Has anyone ever used a Yale sweatshirt as a fart dampener? Does it really work?

 —“If he was a monkey, then why was he killed by a monkey?”

 —“Our topical cold open is about Omarosa borrowing Bjork’s swan dress.” A joke signifying the epitome of hackiness and it’s still funnier than any real sketch from Saturday Night Live this season.

 —I also once took a low-volume shower with Ed Begley Jr. I’d rather not say anything more about it.

—You'll get no argument from me about all the gimmicky guest stars on 30 Rock detracting from the show. The Al Gore cameo was way too on the nose to be funny.

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