30 Rock has, in essence, turned into comfort food.
The show is no longer playing with grand ambitions or great character arcs, no. Instead, this silly little sitcom has found its niche, reveling in its own unique brand of showbiz absurdity, and it’s going to ride it all the way out to the end of its run (which, incidentally, is next season).
Season Six has drawn a lot of ire, and not just for the way its handled hot issues like Tracy Morgan’s real-life homophobic rants on stage (which is handled with kid gloves on the two-parter “Idiots Are People Two!” and “Idiots Are People Three!”). NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a biting piece earlier in the year called The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon: From Woman to Little Girl, noting how when Tina Fey’s avatar showed up initially, she was a strong, smart, independent woman who was still figuring out her love life and her place in the world, unafraid to exhibit power and authority when she needs to. In Season Six, she was a fraction of her former self, swayed too easily by her emotions, prone to tantrums, and watching helplessly as her character arc has slowly flattened out into a plateau over the past two seasons (note how both existing fans and detractors of the show have a hard time arguing with the indisputable character/comedy peak that was Seasons Two & Three).
Yet Season Six opens with one of the best episodes in recent memory. Liz comes back to work to deal with her various fires and problems and crises’ as per usual, but … she’s happy. She avoids conflicts that she knows will aggravate her. Tracy Jordan (Morgan) begins acting out over the rising stardom of Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski, never-better), who has landed a plum job as the “mean judge” on the hit new singing competition show America’s Kidz Got Singing (and when the kids begin playing tramped-up versions of public domain songs so that everyone can sing along without NBC having to pay songwriting royalties, it turns into satire so good that it hurts).
Network exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), sensitive to the needs of his own newborn infant, suddenly feels like Jenna’s crushing of young people’s dreams is going a bit too far, and tries to back her off. Yet just when everything gets resolved at the end and Jack begins describing how Liz is going to enjoy the rest of her evening, he catches an unplanned moment of her kissing a new love in a movie theater — something she keeps everyone in the dark about. Suddenly, Liz’s life isn’t public knowledge: she’s focusing on what makes her happy, and for a brief moment, it feels like the show has once again found its heart.
As the next several episodes draw out, however, that special warmth begins to dissipate, and the show gets locked into more than a few of its routines. Old characters are brought back to diminishing returns, most notably in the form of Susan Sarandon again portraying the predatory love interest of writer Frank Rossitano’s life (much to the chagrin of his mother, played with cartoonish verve by Patti LuPone), Tracy and Jenna get locked in their usual clumsy, introverted adventures (like when they have to save a clearly-bombing bar mitzvah by dressing like Transformers and giving the worst-ever rendition of the “Who’s on first?” routine), and Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) leaves the NBC page program to find his new calling, leading to the introduction of his replacement, Hazel Wassername (Kristen Schaal).
Of all the new characters introduced this season (including Mary Steenburgen as Jack’s new mother-in-law in a role that never quite gels together), Hazel is by far the worst we’ve seen yet in 30 Rock history, as she’s written as a full-tilt crazy person with absolutely no depth to speak of. Even the recurring guest spots (Dean Winters’ as Liz’s reprehensible ex-boyfriend, Chloë Grace Moretz as Jack’s too-young nemesis Kaylie Hooper, Elaine Stritch as Jack’s overtly-racist mother) feel worn and tired, bringing absolutely nothing new to the table. This, coupled with a few outright misfire episodes (“Nothing Left to Lose”, “The Shower Principle”), would make one feel like all hope is lost for all the characters that used to bring such joy to Studio 6H.
However, Season Six still has a whole gamut of surprises left in it, and they’re plentiful enough to make this DVD set worth your valuable time, clearly lifting the whole season above the dreck that was Season Four. First and foremost, James Marsden is brought on as Liz’s new interest, Criss: a liberal, easy-going guy who “gets” Liz’s personality better than just about any one of her exes. They deal with real-life issues like disapproval from inner social circles, traditional male-female roles in a relationship, and — of course — shopping at IKEA. Marsden delivers an easygoing charm that makes you root for him more than just about any other hookup Liz has yet encountered, and by the time hey start breaching the series-long problem of Liz having her own kid, it actually turns sweet again, and it suddenly feels like there’s still distance left to be traveled for a character that seemed to be stuck in neutral for so long.
While Jack & Tracy’s arcs remain largely neutral this season, the role of Jenna feels more smartly figured out, and the writers have a great deal of fun playing up her strengths more than ever before. Jenna spends a lot of her time figuring if she truly wants to be with the one cross-dressing man who will make her happy (Paul, played well by Will Forte), and decides to go on a “sexual walkabout” just to make sure, leading her to hookup with anyone and everything, culminating in the season highlight “Meet the Woggels!”, where she decides to “Yoko” a beloved Wiggles-like children’s band. Even her episodes in handling her friendship with Liz (“The Ballad of Kenneth Parcell”) feel smartly-handled, and get back into the richer emotional territory that made their fights in the show’s first two seasons seem so very human.
Even with its hits and misses, 30 Rock can sometimes make up for lesser elements with just outright humor and star-power. The guests that show up this time ’round are numerous and welcome (say hello to Stanley Tucci, Steve Earle, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kelsey Grammer reprising his role in “The Best Friends’ Gang”, Andy Samberg and Emma Stone in the spot-on mass-ensemble holiday film parody Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Margaret Cho’s iconic rendering of Kim Jong-Il, and a great appearance by Cornel West whom Tracy constantly refers to as ?uestlove), and fan-favorite elements like show-within-a-show The Queen of Jordan and Will Arnett’s recurring character Devin Banks are downright joyous. Yet if you had to nail down Season Six’s highlights to three episodes, they’d be “Leap Day”, “Kidnapped By Danger”, and “Live from Studio 6H”.
All three of these episodes are jam-packed with guest stars, but they all manage to hit the right character notes while still leaving viewers riddled with laughter. “Leap Day” has the show invent a new holiday featuring “Leap Day Williams”, wherein you can take a risk and do anything you want that day as it “doesn’t count” (like Liz facing a $20 million proposition from a successful computer engineer whom Liz used to barely know back in school), all exemplified best by the Jim Carrey-starring film Leap Day Williams, wherein Carrey basically does his whole Liar Liar-schtick (and props to Carrey for being willing to poke fun at himself). “Kidnapped By Danger”, meanwhile, shows that in a new move to get his kidnapped wife Avery back from North Korea, Jack has Liz write a made-for-TV movie about his life with Avery, the execution of which features a lot of fun meta elements, the smartest being casting William Baldwin as Jack Donaghy in the movie itself.
Last but not least, the show’s second live broadcast, “Live from Studio 6H”, proves to be an absolutely loving tribute to television’s past, riffing on The Honeymooners, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Mad Men, and more (note the very clever SNL reference near the end). The guest stars are numerous (Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Chris Parnell, former 30 Rock writer Donald Glover, Brian Williams, and Jimmy Fallon), and the fun is absolutely contagious. Episodes like this are wholly unique because there is no other sitcom on the air that could actually pull of a complete live broadcast and get away with it in the the TGS gang can. Thus: kudos, 30 Rock. Kudos.
The extras on this DVD set are notably lighter/less diverse than what we’ve seen in seasons past. The commentaries are largely bland, and the deleted scenes — as they are with every 30 Rock DVD release — are hit-or-miss, and often last no longer than ten seconds apiece. While having both versions of the “Live from Studio 6H” broadcast is a nice treat (largely due to the many differences the staff writes between the different versions), the best treat is the warmups the live audience is treated to in having Cheyanne Jackson perform “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and Jane Krakowski blast her way through some Janis Joplin (a nice reference back to Season Three for close observers). Those performances are just for the fun of it, but when you consider that the producers of this set had to get the licensing rights for these songs just to include on the DVD — which they very much didn’t have to include — you realize just how much the creators of the show actually do care about the fans, willing to go that little extra mile.
In short, much like Season Five, 30 Rock has found its groove, and it’s continuing to ride it, flaws and all. Even with its missteps and detours, 30 Rock has become familiar to many: not much changes but it always delivers a great deal of laughs and a constant stream of instantly-quotable punchlines (“I finally understand the ending of The Sixth Sense: those names are the people who worked on the movie!”. As it gets ready to ride into the sunset at long last, at least one can take comfort in knowing that 30 Rock, even at its lowest, still manages to achieve a goofy level of charm most shows still dream of having. It’s become audio/visual comfort food, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with that.