'30 Rock' recap: 'To a hundred more episodes!'
"30 Rock" has always had an uneasy relationship with sitcom conventions, and rarely has this been as evident as on Thursday night's 100th episode. However arbitrary a milestone it might be, the 100th episode of any scripted series has traditionally been a cause for celebration (Yay...we reached the syndication threshold!?), a time for self-reflection, "greatest hits" montages and surprise visits from old friends.
To use a risky metaphor, anniversary episodes are a little reminiscent of going to church (or, for that matter, temple) on a big holiday: There are far more decorations than usual, and the place is so full you can hardly breathe, but it feels like everyone is there begrudgingly, in a reluctant nod to tradition. Though the 100th episode of "30 Rock" had some ripping one-liners it was, in the end, forgettable. It's true of most shows, but "30 Rock" in particular: "event" episodes are so constrained by formula that they rarely make for inspired television.
The episode included a reasonable number of brief clip montages, all of which were presented in the same way as the show's trademark "asides," little swooping sound and all. In a sense, it was probably a wise creative decision not to make too much of these sequences, but at the same time, the show might have had a little more fun if it had really indulged the cliché. (Why not a wavy dissolve, with a little harp music to go along with it?)
One problem with the episode is that "30 Rock" is already such a self-reflexive show, it felt redundant to do quite so much "looking back." In order to explain the flashbacks, the episode relied on a rather flimsy story line. Like a batch of potent pot brownies, a gas leak at 30 Rockefeller Plaza has everyone in a state of existential crisis. Jack feels insecure about his accomplishments, Jenna experiences sudden maternal longings, and Tracy's contemplating murder in order to reclaim his bad-boy image.
Liz's story line felt particularly threadbare. Hopped up on gas, she leaves a gushing voice mail for her dolt of an ex-boyfriend, Dennis Duffy. Once she's returned to fresh air -- and a state of lucidity -- Dennis shows up, ready to rekindle their long-dormant romance. This would have been funnier, if virtually the same thing hadn't happened twice last year. Duffy is always good for a laugh or two, but if the show was going to bring back one boyfriend, why not Carol, Drew (sigh) or even Wesley? (If I'm being fair, it's probably because they're played by famous people, but nevermind all that.)
Likewise, Liz and Jack's quarreling also felt a tad too familiar. Earlier this season, Jack tried and failed to impose a dignified professional boundary between himself and Liz. More recently, the two accidentally got married and then came to blows when Liz threatened to withhold a divorce, resulting in a hilarious counseling session with Jeffrey Weinerslav (see No. 1 on this list). Point being, their friendship has been put through the wringer time and time again. Granted, this time Jack's anxieties were provoked by something slightly different. Liz, he realizes, has forced him, however unwittingly, to temper his own ambitions, to realize that friends and family are more important than tuxedos crafted from puma pelts or appearing on the cover of "Meetings" magazine. The Jack-Liz friendship is the heart of "30 Rock," and there's nothing inherently wrong with making this obvious once again, but I'd rather just see it play out in their day-to-day interactions, rather than through contrived and entirely un-suspenseful plot twists. (It's not like anyone thought Jack was actually going to fire Liz.)
Ultimately, this episode works as a showcase for Alec Baldwin. Though we've seen him play opposite himself multiple times before on "30 Rock," (see No. 9 on this list) he took it to "Multiplicity" levels this time. (It just occurred to me: Maybe that's why Michael Keaton showed up in this episode?) Of the three incarnations of Jack--'80s Jack, GE Jack, and Future Jack--I think '80s Jack may have been my favorite, if only because Baldwin is frighteningly good at the surfer-dude patois. The whole thing was an elaborate reimagining of that hoariest of sitcom cliches, the angel-on-one-shoulder-devil-on-the-other. Thanks mostly to Baldwin, it was pretty funny, if rather convoluted.
It was clearly Baldwin's night to shine, so it was fitting that the episode culminated in one of the most self-reflexive moments in the history of this most self-reflexive of shows. Standing atop 30 Rock (the building), Jack delivers a lengthy monologue, assuring Tracy that the only surefire way to lose respect in Hollywood is to slum it on television. Cut to a shot of Tom Hanks, hard at work on a needlepoint rug, when the phone rings. It's George Clooney, telling him that Tracy has returned to TV. Just like that, Tracy is banned from the A-list (it's webmaster Brad Pitt's duty to revoke his password). This, of course, is a none-too-subtle allusion to Baldwin's own career trajectory, from movie hearthrob to sitcom veteran.
In the end, this "100th episode" was at least as successful as most, and yes, that's a backhanded compliment. If nothing else, it made me appreciate plain-old "30 Rock" more than ever.
Joke of the night: Jenna: "Look at Roman Polanski." Tracy: "No thank you!"
Tina's words of inspiration: "Tonight, TGS will not be the worst thing on television. It'll be John Stossel!" --Liz
My new motto: "Be like Michael McDonald and take it to the streets." --Liz
Definitely not my new motto: "It's not rape if neither party really wants it." --Jenna
Jenna's objections to motherhood: "I'm not going to be held back by some uterus turd!" "The only thing I want latched to my fun bags are celebrity DJs."
Quintessential Kenneth: "Candles, incense, disco music...someone's getting into the Easter spirit."
Reason Tracy shouldn't kill Kenneth: "Do you have any idea how much paperwork I'd have to do?" --Jack
Words of praise for "TGS": "Still on." --TV Guide
Most meta moment: "Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn't matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbor, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You can win every award in sight. You can be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you'll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear. Tracy, your career hit rock bottom the first time you decided to do 'TGS.' You want it to hit rock bottom again, go on network television." --Jack (but really, Alec Baldwin, except for the Vanity Fair part)
Old jokes revisited: The Blue Dude; "It's after 6. What am I? A farmer?"; "The mentor and the manatee"; Les Moonvest
Celebrity guest stars: Brian Williams, Rachael Ray, Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa, Matt Lauer, Will Forte, Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin star in "30 Rock."
Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC