'30 Rock' recap: The rainbow coalition
Three episodes into its fifth season, "30 Rock" is in peak form. The series had some wobbly moments last season, but ended on a high note that seems to be continuing -- last week's episode, with a memorable guest spot by Paul Giamatti, was easily one of the "30 Rock's" best.
Thursday night's episode, "Let's Stay Together," was almost as strong and is yet another example of everything that "30 Rock" does so well: Irreverent humor, smart social commentary, and entertainment-industry spoof. Not coincidentally, these same tendencies can also bring "30 Rock" down. (See last season's "Stone Mountain" for evidence.) When the jokes fall short, the show's comedic acrobatics can feel like an obnoxious diversion, but when they hit the mark, the results are sublime. Last night's episode was a prime example of the latter.
The issue of the night, in case you didn't catch it, is diversity. Jack is sent to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the NBC-KableTown merger and tout the benefits of vertical integration. With just a dash of demagoguery, Jack is able to consolidate support for the deal. But Rep. Regina Bookman (Queen Latifah) is the lone holdout. She won't vote "yes" until Jack brings a little color to NBC. This may be an obvious point, but I love how well Alec Baldwin, such an outspoken liberal, plays Jack.
Thus begins a half-hearted (make that quarter-hearted) campaign of affirmative action at 30 Rockefeller Center. The first step is to promote Twofer to co-head writer. At first, Liz is thrilled to have someone else share her workload, but is disappointed when Twofer starts to get media attention -- and when the writing staff doesn't immediately give him a bunch of mean nicknames.
The next step? Jonathan, born in Palo Alto, feigns an Indian accent. Finally, Tracy and his entourage are enlisted to develop programming aimed at a black audience. They come up with "Let's Stay Together," an inspirational drama about an African American family living in Detroit in the 1970s. Oh, and a talking dog, too. When Bookman makes a surprise visit, the diversity sham quickly falls apart. An intra-office fight about craft services is misconstrued as racial warfare, and she lays down the law: Jack needs to make serious improvements or she's going to vote no on the merger. If he really wants to save "thousands of jobs and hundreds of second homes," Jack has his work cut out for him.
The final piece of the puzzle this week is Kenneth, who after 40 years in the wilderness (or, you know, four months) at last regains his job as NBC page. But it's a hard-fought battle. In the years since he first joined NBC, the competition has become fierce, and Kenneth has to do a (literal) song-and-dance routine as part of his interview. Jenna makes Kenneth her pet project. He's not exactly a natural -- more like a "Houston foreclosure" of a performer -- so Jenna decides there's only one course of action.
"I will have to break you down completely and build you up from scratch, just like Mickey Rourke did to me sexually," she says. (I don't know who came up with this season's ongoing Mickey Rourke joke, but bless their hearts for doing it.) Kenneth's performance is a disaster, and Jenna finally resorts to begging Jack to rehire her beloved errand boy. Jack agrees, unwittingly bumping a Native American candidate from the program.
All in all, it was a wildly clever and satiric episode that maybe -- just maybe -- also delivered an important critique about the limitations of diversity programs. That's all well and good and everything, but, truth be told, I'm mostly here for the fart jokes.
One last thing: If you didn't stick around for the credits, make sure to go back and watch them. Though brief, the outtake from "Let's Stay Together" -- featuring the dad from "Good Times" and libidinous talking dog reminiscent of "ALF" -- was possibly the funniest thing in the entire episode.
Joke of the night: "I need you to get me something called Vagitrex. It's for...dry knees." --Jenna
Extent of Liz Lemon's humiliations: Between "El Tejor," "Winona Ryder in a hundred years," and "Fart Garfunkel," the Liz-bashing was back to Season 4 levels this week.
Most meta moment: A keyboard-playing page sings a song with the lyrics, "'Outsourced' is the new 'Friends.'"
Jack's conservative streak: Equating vertical integration of companies like Microsoft with the American family farmer.
Most awkward compliment: "I like your dress. Do you have to wear a bra with it?" --Liz to the co-host of "Right On"
Least PC joke: On an episode all about race relations, there were many. But I think the very clever joke about segregated recycling (with signs for "white" and "colored" paper hung just outside the bathroom doors) was my favorite.
Smarty-pants reference: "She has a point. I was reading the new Malcolm Gladwell 'New Yorker' piece on my Amazon Kindle..." --Liz
Jenna's diva behavior: Jenna was on fire this week, so it's a tough call. But I was partial to "I've got hair extensions for you, and a body shaper with a reinforced penile sleeve," and, of course, "Where was your sparkle? You embarrassed me in front of all the other mothers. If you think you're going to Sizzler tonight, Jenna, you've got another thing coming. You'll be practicing those steps until the school boat comes. If I hadn't seen you come out of me in that parking lot, I'd swear you weren’t my daughter!"
Quintessential Kenneth: [Singing] "Everyone born before Jesus is in hell."
Something I'd like to know more about: Jenna's real name, Yustrepa Grokovitz.
Most absurd Tracyism: "Dotcom. That's Tracy Morgan spelled backwards."
Celebrity guest stars: Queen Latifah, Rob Reiner, John Amos
P.S.: I was lucky enough to see Alec Baldwin at the New Yorker Festival last week. He was almost as charming as Jack Donaghy. You can read about it here.
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Dotcom (Kevin Brown), Tracy (Tracy Morgan), Liz (Tina Fey), and Jack (Alec Baldwin) ponder the merits of diversity -- and talking dogs. Credit: Ali Goldstein / NBC