Writing about television for an online audience is a good way to feel pointless and redundant. The internet is the new water cooler. In this paradigm, I generally feel about as important or central as the water cooler itself. My TV Club posts exist, like a water cooler, primarily to give people a forum to discuss what they’ve just seen on television.
I understand that impulse. My colleague Todd is a great writer and an absolute godsend to TV Club but after I read his well-reasoned, insightful review of last week’s live show I found myself thinking, “Now here’s what I think.” To be blunt, I thought last week was dreadful.
A live 30 Rock was inspired in the sense that the show has always had a distinct fondness/reverence for television history and sitcoms past. It’s set in the fucking NBC building after all. So it seemed both sweet and weirdly appropriate to take the show back to the live television of the 1950s and the “taped before a live studio audience” laughers of the 1970s.
It was a foolhardy and ridiculous idea to do a live 30 Rock because the show relies so heavily on speed, wit, editing, cutaways and deadpan under-reactions that it was painful to see the cast standing there with big Colgate smiles waiting for an overly indulgent studio audience to guffaw at each canned wisecrack so they could mug their way through their next cornball line.
Some commenters have posited that the whole experiment was essentially a meta critique on sitcom conventions but I found the whole thing borderline painful. 30 Rock’s cast is full of ringers; it was embarrassing rooting for them not to fuck up the same way you would an elementary school cast of Godspell. I had to stop watching after about fifteen minutes because it made me sad and made my brain hurt.
With that out of the way, we can now turn our attention to tonight’s blissfully pre-recorded 30 Rock. The episode boasted a great premise rooted in Jack’s Reagan worship and egomania. Jack has attained a state of momentary perfection he calls Reaganing. He goes twenty-four hours without making a single mistake.
Back when I was a young person when Michael Jordan went through a hot streak people said he was “in the zone”. It was as if his body and mind, working in perfect unison, simply would not allow him to make even the smallest mistakes. Reaganing is Jack’s equivalent to being “in the zone” or, in the parlance of NBA Jam, he was “on fire”.
He simply could not do any wrong. Avery not only did that thing that no woman enjoys for Jack’s benefit; she actually gave him a thank you letter for the privilege. Jack is feeling bulletproof and omnipotent so he’s just about able to tackle the biggest challenge of his life and career; counseling Liz on her sexual problems, namely her inability to get sexually aroused in Carol’s presence.
I’ve historically found jokes about Liz being uptight or sexually undesirable pretty tired but tonight those jokes crossed the line between stale and disturbing when we learned the source of Liz’s sexual anxiety; when she was apparently a grotesquely overgrown twelve-year-old who looked like a deranged Raggedy Ann doll she accidentally fell over while tootling around on her roller skates and, for reasons far too stupid to go into, traumatized her mother by appearing to have masturbated vigorously to a Tom Jones poster. Yeah, that was really not the highlight of the episode.
Kenneth and Jenna, meanwhile, decide to join forces to run a series of grifts on a local bakery. Comedy writers love con artists and grifter lingo for a very good reason: they’re awesome. The subplot went from amusing to hilarious when the two rope a surprisingly game and very enthusiastic Kelsey Grammer into their criminal shenanigans.
Jack has his hands full fixing the problems of his lunatic employees; in a beautiful bit of synchronicity, he’s able to get Tracy to deliver his line for a Boys and Girls Club commercial using an old trick picked up from the Gipper, or at least the folks cursed with having to make Reagan look awake and capable of lucid thought; he sneaks pills into Tracey’s jelly beans and transforms him from a space case to an Adderal achiever.
I was not overly blown away by the Liz-eternal-romantic-loser subplot but it redeemed itself at the end by providing another nice moment of connection between Jack and Liz, whose bond has always been the show’s emotional core. Jack even closed a refreshingly solid episode by telling Liz, who he earlier semi-threatened to replace with a joke-writing computer (a gag that felt a little like a dig at Family Guy), that she was great. By Liz standards, that was the professional equivalent of a whole decade of Reaganing.