There really is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a show get back into its groove after a rather erroneous misstep.
After all, Season Four of 30 Rock was a let down on many fronts. After the incredible streak achieved between Seasons Two and Three, it felt as if the writing staff had fallen into a bit of a routine. Although all of the characters’ were now fully tuned in (especially Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, who turned into one of the show’s greatest punchline-machines), there was nothing new or surprising about the character developments, culminating in “Argus”, the program’s absolute, laugh-free nadir. Some elements worked (Jack choosing between two perfect women who happened to be played by Elizabeth Banks and Julianne Moore, show-within-a-show TGS hiring a new cast member), others did not (the Jack-Liz relationship breached no new ground, the character of Liz herself did pretty much nothing for most of the season until meeting “settling soulmate” Wesley near the latter half). It was, in short, a sad thing to see.
Although Season Five faces perpetually fresh competition in the form of shows like Modern Family, Community, and the ever-bettering Parks & Recreation, several new elements come into the mix that help raise 30 Rock up to heights not previously seen since Season Three. While Kabletown (an unmistakable Comcast stand-in) buys NBC, Jack (Alec Baldwin, never finer) does his best to not only make NBC seem profitable (like adding telecom companies into dressing rooms and hosting bar mitzvah’s on the studio floor), but also handle his impending fatherhood as well, as his fiancée Avery (Banks) wants everything to be perfect.
Halfway through the season, Jack gets a new boss: the family friendly yet straight-shooting Hank Hooper (Ken Howard), who is the perfect foil for the right-wing, money-minded Jack. Howard steals virtually every scene he’s in (“Jack, you bought something you didn’t understand, like that time I got tickets to see Black Swan. Remember when a movie was just a fella in a hat running away from a man with no hair?”), but also gives Baldwin’s character something to prove, something he hasn’t done since he interacted heavily with his last boss, Don Geiss (Rip Torn), during Season Two.
“Lemon, you have more sexual hang-ups than an adult chat line run by Gilbert Godfried. That was written by a computer program we’re working on to replace you.”
So while Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) tries to finish winning all the awards in his EGOT (Emmy Grammy Oscar Tony), Liz (Tina Fey) deals with her first “adult” relationship with Carol (Matt Damon), and Jenna figures out where her relationship with Jenna impersonator Paul (Will Forte) is going, the show winds up rediscovering its playfulness, which can be highlighted by three utterly spectacular episodes: the live show (wherein the entire program was literally filmed & broadcast live, one take for each coast with some slight variances thrown in just for fun), the show’s 100th episode (featuring a large gamut of guest stars), and “The Queen of Jordan”, a dead-on show-within-a-show parody of the numerous Real Housewives franchises that exist.
The live program really shows how the 30 Rock at their most creative. Although the episode’s plot is inconsequential (Tracy learns it’s fun to start breaking on air after watching the “non-porn version of The Carol Burnett Show), the episode is filled with musical numbers, fake commercials (starring Chris Parnell and Jon Hamm), and a brilliant workaround of the show’s frequent flashback motif by using Julia Louise-Dreyfus as a Liz Lemon stand-in. Comparing the jokes/timings between the tapings proves to be remarkably fun (they wound up changing a lot between broadcasts), although it seems like the West Coast won out in overall quality.
“A middle-aged woman saying ‘dude stuff’. Is that on my Sadness Scavenger Hunt? Why, yes it is!”
“100”, meanwhile, is 30 Rock‘s first hour-long episode, wherein Alec Baldwin gets to play across from three different versions of himself and numerous A-listers get to drop by just for the hell of it. While the writers try to pull off their best show ever despite facing possible cancellation and a hallucination-feeding gas leak, Tracy Jordan, now a respected actor, must do everything he can to ruin his good name in order to go back to the life he once had, allowing for numerous off-the-wall gags (the best of which is Tracy’s appearance on The Today Show, during which Tracy demands to know what Matt Lauer is talking about when he segueways into some “no cook cooking hair makeunders”.)
While the show makes great use of its guest stars (Aaron Sorkin’s cameo is absolutely killer) and the show’s last six episodes — save the season closer — are some of the best things 30 Rock has ever aired, it should be noted that this season does start a little bit slowly, taking should-be-great moments like the birth of Tracy’s daughter (which is never mentioned again) and Jenna’s new promotion to producer and ultimately squandering them.
This season’s lowest point, sadly, is an episode called “Brooklyn Without Limits”, wherein Jack endorses a misguided Tea Party candidate (a tragically misused John Slattery) so that he can oust a congresswoman hell-bent on terminating the Kabletown-NBC deal. It’s almost as bad as Season Four at its worst: easy pot shots, a dry routine, no real revelations to be had. In short, Season Five’s first stretch seems to merely be shaking off Season Four’s bad vibes.
“Diversity made this nation great: the Chinese built the railroads, the Irish built — then filled — our jails …”
It’s a real joy, then, to see what happens from “Queen of Jordan” onward. The reality show conceit works amazingly well, with Tracy’s wife Angie (Sherri Shepard, in her greatest role ever) launching her music career in her husband’s absence as he tries to help out Africa. From the show’s conceit of Jack playing against the corner the producers are painting him into to the very way that Angie says ham (“Haaaaaaam”) to the various montages of people simply throwing wine on each other, it’s really hard to think of an episode as funny — or endlessly replayable — as this one. It’s fresh, rejuvenating, and the episodes that follow are gold.
Although Margaret Cho’s performance as Kim Jong-Il in “Everything Sunny All the Time Always” is a fan favorite (much less the fact that they somehow got Condoleezza Rice to appear in the same episode), a special mention needs to handed out to the genius conceit of “I Heart Connecticut”, wherein Jenna, starring in a low-budget torture porn film, soon has Jack intervening to make sure that the film is profitable no matter what, which means incorporating positive mentions of the state for a tax break (the blood smears on the wall that used to read “Welcome to Hell” now read “www.IHeartConnecticut.com”), making it family-friendly so it can be distributed at Wal-Mart (a Muppet is thrown in), and allowing Everybody Loves Raymond creator Philip Rosenthal a chance to act (he donates $5 million to the film in order to do so) results in him becoming a rapping sheriff’s deputy on camera, complete with beat boxing, all while viewers are encouraged to text their votes for Phil in to the number on the screen (despite the fact that it’s a movie). In our modern days of hyper-advertising, it’s hard to think of a parody that is more spot-on.
Although the season’s final episode (“Respawn”) definitely feels tacked on (Kenneth closes the season with the exact same Lost joke that he did in “Gentleman’s Intermission”), and the special features are largely wasted this time around (the commentaries are hit-or-miss [props to the hyper-surreal one given by Will Forte and Val Kilmer for no apparent reason], the Jack Donaghy animated shorts a waste of your time) Season Five, on the whole, is exactly where 30 Rock wants to be: fun, goofy, and light-hearted. 30 Rock was never a show that was going to reinvent the comedy paradigm or define an era; it’s a silly lark that continues to poke fun at the entertainment world with a writing staff that seems to have only gotten wittier with time. Although Season Four had us thinking that the thrill is gone for good, Season Five shows us that if all goes according to plan, 30 Rock is finally back on track.