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30 Rock: Season 2

(NBC; US DVD: 7 Oct 2008)

This might sound like a strange thing to say about a show that boasts one of the best ensemble casts on TV, the Emmys to prove it, and ample critical love, but here goes: 30 Rock just can’t catch a break.  First off, the show’s critical acclaim has yet to translate into great ratings, but even diehard 30 Rock fans probably haven’t gotten the full experience, yet. 


Due to questions surrounding Alec Baldwin’s contract status at the end of the first season, the show killed a young—but already hilarious and promising—storyline about the engagement of Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy to an Avian Bone Syndrome-suffering Christie’s auctioneer.  Then, just as the second season was hitting its stride, the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike claimed seven episodes.  So maybe the third season will be the charm, with 30 Rock benefitting from creator Tina Fey’s high-profile movie roles and portrayals of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live


For anyone new to the show, 30 Rock‘s premise shouldn’t be a stumbling block. Liz Lemon (Fey) struggles to control a motley band of writers at a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show. When not coddling actors’ egos and coping with her boss’s slightly unhinged demands, she makes uneasy attempts at a social life. 


Two seasons in, the show doesn’t rely too much on past knowledge, and as well-defined as the characters’ quirks are, they fall into pretty easily defined categories (the country bumpkin, the power-hungry executive, the slob, the vain actress, etc.).The show distinguishes itself with sharp writing that readily piles absurdity on top of absurdity.  But what truly elevates 30 Rock is its willingness to follow seemingly throwaway jokes to their logical, full-blown conclusions.


The show made only passing reference to Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) recording a song called “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”. But even though it wasn’t used in the episode, the show’s creators actually recorded the song.  Early references to “MILF Island” (“20 MILFs. 50 eighth-grade boys. No rules.”) were funny enough in concept, but then 30 Rock devoted an entire episode to the reality show’s premiere (as real-life reality show producers the world over probably kicked themselves for not having such a ludicrous, exploitative idea first). 


It feels like a pretty sure bet that Season 3 will revisit Tracy’s attempt to create the ultimate pornographic video game (memorably chronicled via an Amadeus parody).  Probably the only time 30 Rock hasn’t gone whole-hog on a joke was the much-hyped page-off (“It’s a savage contest, mixing physical stamina with NBC trivia.”) between babyfaced uber-page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) and his archenemy, head page Donny. But maybe that’s for the best. Some dark rituals should remain shrouded in blue-blazered secrecy.


If 30 Rock consisted of only manic moments, though, it wouldn’t have much more weight than the sketch show Lemon and her staff produce.  At 30 Rock‘s heart lies a rarely serious/often ridiculous take on modern life’s eternal work/personal life struggle.  Despite her allegiances to the creative world, Liz is also a write-for-pay workaholic. As Season Two progresses, we see Liz struggle not only with dating but with awakening maternal instincts.


For his part, Jack’s devotion to his career and prospects for advancements are in jeopardy due to his relationship with a—gasp!—Democratic Congresswoman. That’s not to say that 30 Rock actually resonates on an emotional level, or is in any danger of making viewers get teary-eyed, but it at least starts from a recognizable place before it takes us down a rabbit hole of Mystic Pizza musicals, shameful cookie jar collections, and a wig company powerful enough to own one of the world’s largest television networks.

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Andrew Gilstrap is a freelance writer living in South Carolina, where he's able to endure the few weeks each year that it's actually freezing (swearing a vow that if he ever moves, it'll be even farther south). Aging into a fine curmudgeon whose idea of heaven is 40 tree-covered acres away from the world, he increasingly wishes he were part of a pair of twins, just so he could try being the kinda evil one on for size. Musically, he's always scouring records for that one moment that makes him feel like he's never heard music before, but he long ago realized he needs to keep his copies of John Prine, Crowded House, the Replacements, Kate Bush, and Tom Waits within easy reach.


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