Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 26, 2008)
Who better to make a series about life at a Saturday Night Live-style program than actual SNL alumni? That’s what we got with 30 Rock, a sitcom that debuted during the 2006-07 season. Former SNL star Tina Fey acts as the driving force behind the series, and fellow performer Tracy Morgan works as one of the main cast members. In addition, star Alec Baldwin often guest-hosted SNL.
That creates an interesting premise, so let’s see how well the initial season of 30 Rock maintains our interest. I’ll look at all 21 episodes in broadcast order, which is how the shows appear here. The plot synopses come straight from the DVD’s packaging.
Pilot: “Head writer Liz Lemon (Fey) finds herself defending her choices and her live TV show when new network executive Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) starts meddling with the cast.”
As a piece of comedy, “Pilot” sputters a bit. While it throws out some decent laughs and certainly moves at a rapid-fire pace, it feels forced at times. That’s not unexpected, though, as it usually takes shows a while to find themselves, and “Pilot” exists mostly as an expository program anyway. It succeeds as an introduction to the characters and setting.
The Aftermath: “Jack continues to tweak The Girlie Show so that eccentric Tracy Jordan (Morgan) is the star of the show, and Liz makes it all much worse when she tries to smooth things over.”
In essence, “Aftermath” acts as the second part of the “Pilot”. It continues the story started there, so it probably should’ve come as one long episode. That also means it demonstrates the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessors.
Blind Date: “Cupid has a new rival when Jack insists on sending Liz on a blind date with his out-of-town friend, Thomas.”
For the series’ first non-expository show, we get a pretty good one. The main plot about the blind date has some good moments, but it’s not the show’s best part. The “B”-story about the office poker game works better and provides most of the program’s laughs. Both combine to create an amusing show.
Jack the Writer: “Lines are drawn when Jack decides to sit in on the writers’ room and Kenneth the page (Jack McBrayer) tries to deal with Tracy’s difficult demands.”
We can’t call 30 Rock a breakout show for Alec Baldwin since he was already a star, but it certainly rejuvenated his career. Episodes like “Writer” show why; Baldwin’s fatuous interpretation of Jack proves consistently hilarious. The Kenneth plot also works well in this solid episode.
Jack-tor: “Jack is determined to act in a sketch on the show. Liz suspects Tracy may be illiterate.”
Though this episode features three running storylines, it feels padded. The fake outtakes with Jack go on way too long; they’re funny for a moment but we don’t need as much of them. The show still gets laughs, but it drags a little too much.
Jack Meets Dennis: “Liz reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Dennis (Dean Winters), the last remaining pager salesman in New York. Meanwhile, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy try to ‘enhance’ their appearances for career reasons.”
Is it just me or does Liz/Dennis give off an Elaine/Puddy vibe? Granted, Dennis is much more offensive than Puddy ever was, even at David’s face painting dopiest. It’s a little tough to swallow him as Liz’s boyfriend, but at least their scenes are funny. The pathetic attempts Tracy and Jenna make to seem edgy (him) or young (her) also entertain and help make this a good program.
Tracy Does Conan: “It’s a star showdown when a dazed and confused Tracy bumps Jenna from her scheduled appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
“Conan” boasts a more frantic pace than usual, as it puts Liz into full-on damage control mode. Tracy’s freak-out provides the biggest laughs, but all the other elements succeed as well. This turns into maybe the best episode to date.
The Break-Up: “At the urging of everyone, Liz finally breaks up with her beeper salesman boyfriend. But the path back to ‘single and loving it’ proves to be filled with unforeseen obstacles.”
After “Conan”, it becomes almost inevitable that “Break” won’t be as memorable. The show has its moments, especially when Liz goes out to meet guys at bars. It’s just not quite as good as “Conan” – or maybe I’m just perplexed by the choice to make the score sound a whole lot like “Thunder Road”.
The Baby Show: “There are mommy issues on the set when Jenna tells everyone that Liz wants to get pregnant, and Jack gives her some very personal parental advice.”
“Baby” offers as close to a theme episode as we’ve seen so far, as most of the threads relate to motherhood. It balances them well and creates a good little package. The best part comes from Josh’s impersonations, though; these aren’t explicitly connected to moms, but they fit in well anyway.
The Rural Juror: “Jenna can’t wait for her new movie to open, but Liz won’t tell her what she really thinks of her performance.”
I’m almost sad to come to the climax of the Rural Juror arc simply because I like hearing the title so much. At least the show allows us to see some serious cat fighting between Liz and Jenna. Add to that “The Tracy Jordan Meat Machine” and this becomes another solid episode.
One complaint about 30 Rock that comes to the forefront in “Rural Juror”: the show wears its Simpsons influence too heavily. The series often uses a structure very similar to that of mid-Nineties Simpsons, as it goes with some non sequitors such as this episode’s reference to Kenneth and his enemy in props. Also, the infomercial is funny but feels just like The Simpsons, right down to Dr. Spaceman in the Dr. Nick slot. 30 Rock amuses but can feel unoriginal when it shows this Simpsons slant.
The Head and the Hair: “There are some new power players around when Jack and Kenneth the page switch roles for the day and Liz finds herself clicking with a gorgeous hunk.”
One irritating theme of 30 Rock: its insistence that Liz isn’t terrible attractive. Liz/Fey is a serious babe, and it’s weird to see her treated like some sort of mediocrity. I’d kill for a honey like her!
Despite my continued bewilderment with the series’ view of her, “Hair” has many good moments. The parts with “The Hair” are a bit erratic, but I like the Kenneth subplot, and Tracy’s attempts to dictate his autobiography entertain. The twist at the end with “The Hair” is a bit dopey, but I like the episode anyway.
Footnote: what’s up with Tracy Morgan’s facial hair? One episode he has some, and the next it’s gone.
Black Tie: “Liz, Jack and Jenna rub elbows with the upper crust at a prince’s (Paul Reubens) birthday party, but the end of the evening finds Liz lying low after Jack’s ex-wife (Isabella Rossellini) shows up.”
If we’re supposed to be so dazzled by Rossellini’s beauty, it’d help if she didn’t now look like Rosa Klebb in From Russian With Love. I always thought she was ehhh anyway, but she’s not improving with age. I’ll take Tina Fey now over Rossellini at any point in her life.
Okay, enough soapboxing about over-rated women. (I also better stop raving about Fey before she puts out a restraining order on me.) I like the episode’s surprisingly subtle references to Pretty Woman, and Reubens’ grotesque Prince Gerhardt is awfully cartoony, but he’s funny. It’s an erratic episode but it works enough of the time.
Up All Night: “Valentine’s Day is much more than candy and flowers when Jack celebrates the finalization of his divorce and the writers are forced to pull an all-nighter.”
Okay, I might not think Rossellini is particularly attractive, but it’s damned funny to hear her exclaim “you know I love my Big Beef and Cheddar!” We finally meet Tracy’s wife – and she seems way too unattractive for him. That stretch is a bit of an issue, and the Valentine’s theme doesn’t really soar. That still means some decent laughs, but it’s not one of the better shows.
The “C” Word: “Being the boss isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when Liz overhears the writers discussing her management style and Jack tries to impress CEO Don Geiss (Rip Torn) at a charity golf tournament by bringing Tracy along.”
Employee/employer relationships come to the fore in the solid “’C’ Word”. Tracy’s attempts to shame Jack offer the most amusement, but Liz’s overcompensation for her stern side also amuses. The episode offers a good rebound after the lackluster “Up All Night”.
Hard Ball: “It’s negotiation time, and Jack plans to teach Liz a thing or two about how to handle Josh’s (Lonny Ross) new contract. Jenna makes several big publicity mistakes.”
“Hard Ball” acted as my introduction to 30 Rock when it appeared on the American Pie Presents Beta House DVD. If the folks at Universal put it there to promote 30 Rock, the choice worked; I didn’t plan to watch the series, but I liked “Hard Ball” enough to give this set a look. It’s even better once I know the show’s context, as all parts of this winner shine.
The Source Awards: “It’s lights, camera, aggravation when Liz finds herself locked in a relationship with Tracy’s determined new manager (Wayne Brady) and Jack forces Tracy to host the Source Awards.”
And here’s where we get into race relations. The best parts come from Liz’s dates with an African-American guy; though they’re totally wrong for each other, she can’t dump him without being classified as racist. Parts of the show seem forced, though, as the episode tries a little too hard to be provocative. It’s amusing but not a great program.
The Fighting Irish: “Family matters move front and center when Jack is reunited with his down-and-out brother (Nathan Lane) and Liz has a tough time making staff cutbacks.”
Liz’s side of things works the best, as her attempt to turn her burden into a boon prove very entertaining. The parts with Jack’s family are less terrific. We get some good guest stars but too much of it’s predictable. Still, it’s a generally good episode.
Fireworks: “Sparks are flying when Jack uses Kenneth the page to thwart an aggressive west coast NBC exec (Will Arnett) and Liz follows her crush to an AA meeting.”
I suppose it’s inevitable that any sitcom of this sort would show some Seinfeld overtones, but more and more, Liz seems to be turning into Elaine. Her side of things definitely follows a Seinfeld arc, which makes it less effective than I’d like. Tracy’s search to find himself stands as the most entertaining aspect of this average episode.
Corporate Crush: “Love is in the air, but Liz is concerned when Jack takes an overwhelming interest in her new boyfriend (Jack Sudeikis).”
The notion of Floyd the boyfriend – teased to us as “Flower Guy” for weeks – sounds better than the reality. Nothing against Sudeikis, but the character was more interesting when we saw much less of him. Even Tracy’s terrible Jefferson trailer doesn’t entertain as much as it should. This becomes a rather flat episode.
Cleveland: “There are certainly no sparks when Jack asks Liz to take his fiancée Phoebe (Emily Mortimer) out for a ladies’ lunch, but Liz finds a lot more to like when her boyfriend takes her to the great city of Cleveland.”
I’m starting to think Floyd zaps the life from 30 Rock. I have no problem with the character or the actor, but the last couple of episodes have been forgettable. The appropriate components are there, but the show just doesn’t manage to take off and entertain as much as I expect.
Hiatus: “Tracy, on the run from the Black Crusaders, goes into hiding with Kenneth’s cousin Jessie (Sean Hayes), and the pressure’s on Liz to make the show work after Jack’s mother (Elaine Stritch) arrives and Jack ends up in the hospital.”
“Hiatus” rockets us toward the end of Season One, and it does so fairly well. It’s not one of the year’s best shows, but I love Stritch’s crotchety turn as Jack’s mother, and the program concludes the first season on a good note.