Trapped Inside the Chuckle Hut That Is ’30 Rock: Season Four’

If something felt slightly off with Season Four of 30 Rock, you weren’t the only one to notice.

For awhile, 30 Rock was starting off as a unique blend of past television greats, mixing the top-notch workplace comedy stylings of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the random, absurdist humor of Arrested Development to create something undeniably upbeat and frequently over-the-top ridiculous. What made the show get better, however (especially in its Second and Third Seasons), was the tightening of the relationship between its leads: sketch-show head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and NBC corporate executive Jack Donaghy (a never-better Alec Baldwin). They pushed each other out of their comfort zones but very gradually built a strong, enduring friendship, helping each other with everything from relationship problems to career-changing workplace issues, all while leaving a trail of gut-busting jokes in their wake.

The longer 30 Rock stretched on, however, the characters got deeper than anyone would have expected, with Liz still going baby-crazy despite being single (and nearly 40) and Jack finally beginning to reconnect with his long-lost father (Alan Alda, making a brief appearance at the tail-end of Season Three), all while the stars of SNL stand-in TGS Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) stirred up the usual bouts of wackiness, frequently involving the show’s absolute moral center, country bumpkin and perpetual do-gooder Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer). The show’s pacing has gotten breezier, its frequent entertainment industry targets have gotten sharper (Season Four does a nice Leno/Conan take involving the late-night shift janitors), and the 30 Rock writers are now riding a line of absurdity that allows them to get away with an army of absolutely lethal one-liners (Jenna: “I can set you up with my trainer! He’s gay… but not when he’s drunk.”).

With that, Season Four starts off promising enough, with Liz dealing with the success of her “Dealbreakers” book (based off of a relationship-advice sketch she wrote for TGS last season) and the various issues that being a minor-key celebrity raises. Jack, meanwhile, forces Liz and producer Pete (Scott Adsit, still the show’s comedic secret-weapon) to find a new cast member for TGS because Jenna and Tracy aren’t as relatable to “real America” (as Jack calls it). Jenna offers to “go country” and records a roaring Southern-rock anthem for the one sport NBC has left: off-season tennis, yet proceeds to meltdown upon finding out that another cast member is being brought along, taking away precious attention from her. Hijinks (predictably) ensue.

At this point, however, Liz Lemon’s character arc begins to lose a lot of momentum. She and Jack aren’t just co-workers anymore: they’re best friends, extremely comfortable with each other, and suddenly it feels as if the conflicts they had between each other in seasons past are now nowhere to be found: they’re stuck inside a long-running buddy comedy, avoiding the power struggles that provided the main heft for their conflicts past. All of this chumminess is fine and good for some of their adventures, like when they visit Stone Mountain, Georgia to try and find that elusive new cast member (the only major talent they find is a comedy ventriloquist, appropriately played by Jeff Dunham). The rest of the time, however, they are simply bouncing ideas and stories off of each other, tossing out jokes almost haphazardly and with the force of a weak softball pitch. The “maybe they’ll get together” tension, the dynamic shifts in power, the biggest source of gravitas in the entire series — all put to bed for Season Four.

It is with good fortune, then, that the rest of the characters finally get a chance to develop more structured backstories, which proves to be especially true in the case of Jenna. As Lorne Michaels points out in one of the commentary tracks for this DVD set, it feels like the writing has finally caught up with Krakowski’s character, and suddenly the embodiment of every egocentric-actress cliché gets not just one, but multiple unique arcs to mold her into something a bit more three-dimensional than before.

This season, not only does Jenna begin dealing with the strained relationship with mother, Verna (played to trailer-trash perfection by SNL album Jan Hooks), but also searches for a real relationship to ground herself with. The first one is a carefully-orchestrated publicity campaign wherein she appears to be dating James Franco (expertly portrayed by James Franco), who is looking for a way to quell any rumors that he’s in the middle of a relationship with a Japanese body pillow (which he is). Even for someone as superficial as Jenna, even this begins to ring hollow after all. After placing 4th in a Jenna Maroney look-alike contest, however, Jenna soon finds true love in the form of a drag queen named Paul (Will Forte), who it turns out placed 1st in that contest. Yet even with now having the perfect way to truly love herself, lessons of acceptance must be learned by both Jenna and Paul in order for it to work…

Jack: “[Don Geiss] & I would sit on his veranda of his home in Connecticut, talking about business … politics … how to avoid getting papercuts while making love on a pile of money …”

While Tracy decides to earn his EGOT (to become one of the few people in the world to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony in his lifetime) and focus on actually starting a family for once, it is Jack who is given one of the seasons juiciest plotlines: having his heart stuck between two gorgeous and beautiful women, all while a Comcast-styled buyout of NBC is taking place with the imminent GE takeover by a company called Kabletown. Baldwin’s character has always had fantastic romantic foils to fall back on, ranging from the hollow-boned museum curator Phoebe (Emily Mortimer in Season One) to the Democratic congresswoman CC Cunningham (Edie Falco in Season Two) to the fiery Puerto Rican caregiver Elisa (Salma Hayek in Season Three).

This time out, the ante is doubled, as he first meets up with boyhood friend Nancy Donovan (Julianne Moore, sporting a spectacularly over-the-top Boston accent), and then later encounters the sharp-witted CNBC anchorwoman Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks). As he goes back and forth between the two women — one reconnecting him with his past, the other leading him to a bright future — he is soon caught in an impossible quagmire, as he truly cannot decide between them, so decides to pursue both relationships head-on just to see which one will win out in the end. Not only do the guest actresses give it their all, such kindness and consideration on Jack’s end humanizes him even further while not pulling too far away from the smarmy archetype that has come to define this incredible character.

While all of these story lines go forward, Liz Lemon’s own arc hits a dead space following the conclusion of the “Dealbreakers” plotline. There are a few episodes where she’s just — there. Doing nothing. This leads to the episode “Winter Madness”, where the cast and crew of TGS wind up in Boston for a week and Liz blames all of the group’s problems on an imaginary executive. This episode — one of the absolute weakest in the history of 30 Rock — offers absolutely no development for any character save Jack (who visits Nancy during this time). In fact, Liz doesn’t really have any new motivations until “Future Husband”, when after a drugged-out visit to the dentist, she finds a new listing in her phone called “Future Husband”, only to meet a British gentleman named Wesley Snipes (an absolutely goofy Michael Sheen).

They determine after one date that they have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever together, but keep running into each other again and again and again. Eventually Wesley determines that they are “settling soulmates”, saying the only major sticking point between them is that she hates him. They weren’t meant for anything greater, so he argues they should just cut their losses and compromise for each other.

Jenna: “Jack, it was perfect! … Like a John Mayer song!”

Although the subject is given a typically wacky veneer, there’s a lot of powerful truth to be found in the “settling soulmate” idea, as Liz’s relationships have ranged from decent to pitiful. Even Nancy points out during a singles wine-and-cheese tasting event (or as Liz calls it, Single Fart Suppression Night) that she’s now simply looking for what she doesn’t want in a guy instead of what she does, that her whole outlook is affecting what she’s getting in the long-run. Between this, Jenna’s new love interest, Tracy’s desire to have a baby girl and Jack’s being torn between two absolutely amazing women, the conclusion to Season Four has a lot more gravitas than we’re initially lead to believe, making up for the absolutely dreadful dry-patch right in the middle of this season’s run.

Of course, 30 Rock still manages to feature some of the most fantastically absurd one-liners on television (in describing the horrors of his childhood, Tracy once notes that he saw “a pack of wild dogs took over and successfully ran a Wendy’s.”), and one of the greatest gathering of guest stars you can imagine (this season features appearances from Betty White, Matt Damon, Brian Williams, Will Farrell, Jon Bon Jovi, and returning guests like Elaine Stritch, Jon Hamm, Dean Winters, Jason Sudeikis, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Parnell, and Al Gore). The special features on this DVD-set are as hit-or-miss as they usually are, the deleted scenes being pretty sparse, the commentaries sometimes being too chummy to be relatable (save the two with Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski, which show of the pair’s amazing comic improv skills). Also, given Tina Fey’s well-known pursuits as a foodie, a full episode of the Food Network show Ace of Cakes is included, where the Charm City Cakes crew are given the task of creating a giant cake of fictitious animated food spokescreature Meat Cat for the 30 Rock wrap party.

The Ace of Cakes episode is decent but not life-changing any means, although one of the most telling lines of the entirety of 30 Rock comes right at the tail-end. Fey wanted Meat Cat to be jumping over a shark on the cake (which he is), and when asked about the decision, she notes how after a show runs more than three seasons, people start to claim that it’s truly jumped the shark. She then turns to the cake and says “I’m proud of Meat Cat jumping the shark. Your life begins on the other side of the shark”, ending with a wink.

Let’s hope so, Tina, for all of our sakes.

RATING 6 / 10