It’s a funny thing writing about a series with the knowledge that it’s coming to an end in the very near future. I’ve covered shows on life support before—R.I.P. The Playboy Club—but they were shows that were in a death spiral from day one. The same can’t be said for 30 Rock, a series that, despite some ups and downs, has remained one of the sharpest, most eccentric, and funniest sitcoms on television for six seasons now. While my head tells me it’s always better to go out on a relative high, my heart just wants to scream out, “Don’t goooo!” That’s a fundamental conflict for so many TV fans: Do we want more of a diminished product, or less of something that we can remember fondly? It is better to burn out, or to rust? I know what I’m supposed to say as a Sophisticated Viewer Of Television, but with a show that’s still as good as 30 Rock, I honestly don’t know. I’d take four more years of B- episodes of this show over 30 seconds of 2 Broke Girls. 30 Rock might not be at the creative peak of its early seasons, but when it’s gone in just 14 more episodes, I’ll be one sad lady.
That’s all a way of saying that it feels a little futile to criticize a show that isn’t much longer for this world; why not just enjoy it while it’s still there? But, alas, that’s not the nature of my job, so let’s get to it. “The Return Of Avery Jessup” is an episode of 30 Rock that’s about as straightforward as its title. It’s not at all bad, yet somehow, it doesn’t live up to its own dramatic potential. It’s been a year since Avery was taken hostage by Kim Jong-il, and what a year it’s been: Kim died, Jack almost had an affair with Avery’s mom, and Liz fell in love (again). For all the build-up, though, Avery’s return somehow doesn’t feel as exciting or triumphant as it ought to. I expected some dramatic rescue or complicated diplomacy—or, at the very least, a glimpse inside the Steve Bing’s sex plane. Instead, Jack quietly picks Avery up at the airport, and it’s just like old times again.
Only it’s not. From the moment of their reunion, Jack suspects that Avery might have had a fling with Scottsdale's Scott Scottsman, a news anchor also taken into custody by Korean officials. He hardly seems like Avery’s type, but then desperation will do crazy things to a lady. (Or, uh, so I hear.) Of course, Jack’s suspicions about Avery are fueled by his own guilt over making out with her mother. He tries to coax Avery out of her “forgiveness bunker” with increasingly shocking confessions about his attraction to Diana—not to mention an adult version of Dora the Explorer. In the end, it turns out Avery has been gaming Jack all along; she never strayed while in North Korea, and only used Scott as a pawn to cajole the truth out of Jack. She wins.
It’s the same kind of “psychosexual mind games” we’ve seen these two engage in many times before, and it feels maybe a little too familiar. Their relationship is fundamentally a competitive one, which I can appreciate. It does, however, seem odd that Jack’s trangression with Diana is forgiven so easily. Yes, it was only a kiss, but it was with Avery’s mother. Am I just being a stick in the mud to point out how icky this is? I feel like the Diana subplot may be one of those jokes that sounds slightly better in the writers’ room than it is in reality. The problem is that once the initial shock value wears off, the conflict has to be resolved, and, well, making out with one’s mother-in-law is poor form, isn’t it? Maybe Avery’s just a particularly forgiving woman, or maybe she’s turned on by it all in some twisted way. Whatever the case may be, I’m happy Avery’s back. I love her rapport with Jack, and I’m a big Elizabeth Banks fan. She’s got that old-fashioned, sassy dame quality that so few actresses seem to have anymore. I’ll take it where I can.
Speaking of heroines, this week Liz has to confront her discomfort with being the breadwinner in her relationship. It’s a rather timely subject, given all the chatter about the dominance of women in the workplace these days and the disproportionate effect of the Great Recession on males. In other words, Liz’s relationship with Criss will likely prove familiar, if slightly exaggerated, to many women. Without getting too “armchair psychiatrist” about it, there are some episodes of 30 Rock that feel distinctly more autobiographical than others, and “The Return Of Avery Jessup” would certainly be one of them.
Now that she and Criss are contemplating having a “plant”—they can’t bring themselves to say “baby”—he’s planning on installing an intercom upstairs. The only problem is it will cost $10,000 to rewire the apartment. (Maybe look for a sale on a baby monitor instead? Just a thought.) Criss has only $200 to put toward the project, a fact that makes Liz feel uncomfortable about being the breadwinner in her relationship, then guilty for her un-feminist feelings. It turns out Criss resents Liz’s control a little bit, too—especially the fact that Liz has created a system called “Criss points” so that he can earn enough money to take them out on a date. He suggests that she might be better off with someone named Spencer or Grant, the kind of guy who would have a tiny basketball on his office garbage can (which, I have to say, is a wonderfully evocative description).
In the end, the couple reaches a compromise. Liz decides not to feel bad about being the wearer of the pants, to enjoy the fruits of her considerable labor, while Criss decides to step up his hot dog operation. She’ll probably always be the top earner and the boss in their relationship, and they’re both OK with that. It’s another healthy step forward for these two, a couple I was skeptical of at first but am now very much rooting for. There’s also something very relatable about Liz’s dilemma. Making more money than your boyfriend is one thing, but squeezing out a baby and then hurrying back to work to keep making said money is another thing entirely. Even those of us who didn’t get a $6 million advance for our book can understand Liz's frustration.
In contrast, Jenna has no problems with the gender role reversal in her relationship; she's happy to buy herself her own Christine LaButtons, thank you very much. Jenna has other worries on her mind—namely, the return of the repressed Southern hellcat that’s laid dormant within her for so many years. It’s all very goofy, yet there’s also something believable about Jenna’s transformation from trashy teen to haughty actress and then back again. (Jane Krakowski also plays the hell out of it, as usual.) Unfortunately, Jenna’s regression occurs at an inopportune time, as she’s trying to line up sponsors for her wedding to Paul but finds herself acting out in inappropriate ways. The experience leads Jenna to realize you can take the girl out of Toilet Swamp Cove, but you can’t take the Toilet Swamp Cove out of the girl. Amen to that.
- Those off-brand Sesame Street characters are all over midtown Manhattan and are indeed extremely creepy.
- Jack to Avery: “Sorry I bit your tongue. It’s been a while.”
- Avery on North Korean food: “Their meat is just deflated kickballs.”
- Jack on the latest version of Mitt Romney: “They worked all the bugs out. He’s not killing hobos at night anymore.” (He’s just cutting their hair off!)
- Joke that I suspect will confuse future viewers: “I finally watched the premiere of Prime Suspect on Hulu.”
- As I have long suspected, Lloyd Blankfein lives in the sewer and subsists on a diet of rotten fish, and Greta Van Susteren downs hot dogs like Slimer.
- Why Jack loves his wife: “She has the brain of a man and the ass of a French teenager.”
- I am slightly ashamed to admit that “Mayor Boomberg” got the biggest laugh from me in this episode, though the image of grown-up Dora locked in passionate embrace with Jack Donaghy was a close second.