Elephant in the peacock: 30 Rock is my favorite comedy on the air and one of the best in production, an element of my character you (and China, newborns, and the aliens of Gliese 581-g) have likely discerned. It sounds like faint praise considering all the greats on hiatus (The Thick of It, Parks and Recreation, Archer, Louie), but 30 Rock is the best show the “critical” protection racket tends to shred. Fine—all those Emmys force it into a higher tax bracket unlike that absurdity of a once-great kitchen-sink comedy The Office and the pointless but funny and comforting distraction Community. Unsurprisingly, 30 Rock also mounted the most ambitious gimmick tonight, the live episode, while Community went with another genre “parody” and The Office went with a parade of past guests. Must-see TV?
I was rooting for the Russians on tonight’s Community, a space movie riff that lacked in satirical precision what it more than made up for in unearned characterization. And what was the point? At least in “Modern Warfare” you could argue that Community had (for some reason) assumed the mantle of exposing action film clichés; “Basic Rocket Science” just sorta cannibalized The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Alien, and more because it, you know, could, and only the opening was especially expert. But was it funny, the lazy ask. Not really, but that’s just because this group has a high batting average; there were still a handful of good ones like the Dean’s map and, I assume, other jokes that I can’t recall.
Let’s skip ahead to The Office, because the middle of the trilogy is always darkest. What is there even to say? Steve Carell’s checked out, nobody’s believable, and the plots have nothing to do with 1) office life, 2) the office as a family, 3) the economic climate of the here and now, 4) funny people waiting out the clock, or 5) anything recognizable as real life. Setting up the return of Holly? I can't wait to drag that fond memory through the dreck that The Office is now content to be, a quasi-“romantic” “comedy” riding the crest of capitalist inertia.
Live from New York, however, came a magnetic pair of 30 Rocks, likely the weirdest, roughest episode of a show that depends on being quick, slick, and scattershot, yet nevertheless a funny, postmodern, and intrinsically 30 Rock show. The translation of this single-camera cartoon to a multicamera live format committed the grave crime of not being perfect—the live poster mishap pales next to the continuity gag from last season, and the audience was clearly hopped up on the goofballs—but director Beth McCarthy Miller made us feel at home with swinging cameras for the cutaways, bolstered by the surprise of Julia-Louis Dreyfus as a damn good Liz Lemon and Garrett Neff as a damn fine Jack Donaghy. Other highlights: the sung credit sequence; consummate performer Jane Krakowski, who had some of the best cracks (the topical stuff, the Irene Ryan joke, “Welcome back to Fox News. I’m blonde”); the commercials, esp. Drew’s west coast ad; the return of Rachel Dratch’s monopoly on hysterical working class immigrants.
Best of all, the live show is another trope under 30 Rock’s belt, not a gimmick for gimmick’s sake (though there’s that, and judging by the media coverage, it worked) but a simultaneously hypermeta and sincere stab at a television staple. Season 5 has been addressing the
My vision for the future of 30 Rock: when it’s a season or two out, actors ready to jump ship, we change course dramatically. TGS is canceled, but Jack guides Liz in the development of her own sitcom, not a live sketch show but a fictionalized half-hour version of working at a sketch show. She’s to play herself (remember, she was once an actress represented by Suzanne’s B+ Talent), and Jenna and Tracy get cast in supporting roles. 30 Rock then follows its Tina Fey’s version of 30 Rock. Hopefully we follow this for at least a season, but I guess it could work for a finale. Royalties, please!