"30 Rock" Mid-Season Review

11/21/2009 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Sam Roos

NBC’s “30 Rock” began this season with a lot to live up to. While the show has been critically acclaimed from the first episode, it wasn’t until star Tina Fey broke out her Sarah Palin impression on SNL that the show actually started to attract viewers and make money—which is ironic, as most “30 Rock” fans agree that last season was a step backwards for the show. The end of the third season, in particular, started to rely pretty heavily on convoluted plots that arced for two, three, sometimes four episodes. In particular, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) had to do a lot of heavy lifting, and seemed to drift away from the show’s wacky, irreverent style in order to keep the plots moving. Well, six episodes into season four, it seems like the writers are back on track.

There seems to be a very specific focus on making the show more episodic--that is, to let each episode stand on its own, rather than depending on others for context or dramatic progression. This isn’t to say the show has totally dropped having multi-episode plotlines, but they’ve been broken up better. This season, the main recurring plot is the addition of a new cast member to TGS (the show for which Liz Lemon is the head writer). But the search for the cast member, the reaction by the old cast members, the finding of new talent, the auditioning of that talent, and the integration of the new talent into the show each had their own episode that was totally independent of the last. We didn’t even meet the new cast member until the fifth episode, which appears to be the end of that plotline.

With the exception of the rogue viewer tuning in for the first time, you might be wondering why this matters. Well, “30 Rock” is a very cleverly constructed show. It’s centered around two single people who we know will never get together, it takes place mostly in an office, and yet almost every week, Liz and Jack have fairly traditional sitcom arcs. When done properly, these arcs give the show a nice energy that’s both unique and familiar. It’s pleasing to watch and follow, which is good, because the jokes come so fast and furious that sometimes the viewer can hardly keep up. When the plot becomes to convoluted, and Liz and Jack have to do too much dramatic heavy lifting, we get away from that fast-paced “joke-joke-joke” mentality, and the show starts to become a little blasé.

The most recent episode is a perfect example of “30 Rock” at its best. This was NBC’s “Green Week,” a marketing campaign in which the network forces every show to write an episode whose theme involves some kind of “Green-ness.” It’s the kind of thing that, when passed down from executives to writers, can be deadly (for an example, see last year’s green episode of “The Office,” which was painfully forced.) But in last week’s episode, the writers embraced the slightly forced nature of the idea and made it into a game for Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to play. Then, they gave both Liz and Jack very simple, traditional sitcom plots: Liz is trying to buy the apartment above her, and Jack wants a vasectomy (alright, maybe a vasectomy isn’t a traditional sitcom ploy, but dealing with children certainly is, and that’s what it really was about.)

So, we’ve got three exceedingly simple storylines, which play out in fairly predictable ways. But since the structure of the plot is solid, the writers are able to lay joke upon joke like bricks upon bricks. The joke writing in “30 Rock” is incredible because it always goes a step farther. For example, it’s a great joke when Jack tells Liz, “This is Manhattan real estate. There are no rules. It’s like check-in at an Italian airport.” Perfect joke, it advances the plot and gets a laugh. But the “30 Rock” writers come from the Chicago school of improvisation and comedy, which means they’re reusing every part of the buffalo. So later on, when Jenna tells Liz, “Don’t feel bad. This is Manhattan real estate. There are no rules. It’s like check-in at an Italian sex party,” we get off on the joke that Jenna is intimately familiar with Italian sex parties. The repetition also is funny. It’s a perfectly crafted joke, and an example of why, when they’re able to keep the plot out of their own way, “30 Rock” is still the funniest, smartest comedy on broadcast TV.

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