'30 Rock' recap: Where in the world is Tracy Jordan?
"30 Rock" is, by design, an extremely self-referential show (news flash!). Sometimes, "30 Rock" gets a little carried away by its own cleverness, and leaves the viewer in the cold. Done the wrong way, "meta" can feel empty and self-indulgent. But done the right way, it's an intriguing -- and entertaining -- insight into the pressures of being a woman in showbiz. Tina Fey's much-hyped new memoir, "Bossypants," hit bookstores this month. It has received positive reviews so far, but there's a consensus emerging: It's not quite forthcoming enough to be considered a memoir. I'm sure I'll read the book, though in a way, I feel it might be redundant. "30 Rock" is already Tina Fey's confessional booth.
Consider this week's episode, in which Liz, desperate to get "TGS" back on the air, goes on a manhunt for Tracy Jordan. "This show is my life. I need Tracy back," she tells Jack. (Of course, the real Tracy -- Tracy Morgan -- has been away for medical reasons.) There's something about Liz's desperation and anxiety in this episode that felt a bit raw. It conveyed a sense of what it's like to run a show that not only means everything to you, but which keeps many other people employed.
The entire episode had an improvisational, pasted-together quality to it, like you could feel the writing staff straining to fill the giant, Tracy Morgan-shaped hole in their show. I don't actually mean this in a bad way. Tracy's absence, so far, has yielded some surprisingly funny shows. But there were times at which the plot felt stretched thin, like Liz and Kenneth's trip to the pizza place. The "New York Pizza Academy" joke was amusing and silly, one of the weird little asides that "30 Rock" does so well, but it was, if anything, too digressive. As Kenneth puts it, "Well, this is obviously a dead end."
Though we've seen the Liz-as-detective thing before, it's still funny watching as she and Kenneth follow Tracy's footsteps around the city. Liz, noticing the sex-stain-free futon on which Tracy is sitting, eventually realizes that he's been hiding out in her own apartment. His rationale is that Liz only goes home to sleep, so she'd never notice him living there. Again, there's more than a trace of the autobiographical in this turn of events. (Though, I doubt that Tracy Morgan has made a habit of hiding out at Casa Fey -- yet.)
Even Jenna's very funny storyline is, in its own absurd way, a rumination on the conflict between creativity and commerce. After her back-up plan -- selling "Jenna Babies" on television -- falls apart, Jenna takes a part in a torture horror movie called "Take My Hand." But this, too, falls apart when the state of Connecticut, which is subsidizing the production, objects to the film's negative depiction of the Nutmeg State (the main character, Slaughterface, wants to build -- ew -- a house made of breasts for the governor). Jenna and Jack, who's determined not to throw away any more money developing rotten projects, decide to overhaul the script themselves, punching it up with references to Connecticut's beautiful state forests and railroad museums.
The storyline is very "inside showbiz," yet it's accessible, if only because "Take My Hand" is such a dead-on satire of gross-out movies like "Saw" and "Human Caterpillar" (Jack: "Should 'vaginatorium' be capitalized?"). It also doesn't hurt that Jenna has so many great lines (e.g. "Listen up fives, a ten is speaking" and "Reese Witherspoon's just a likable version of me"). Maybe I've changed, or perhaps the "30 Rock" team has gotten better at writing Jenna, but she's slowly become the most entertaining supporting character on this show.
Joke of the night: The coked-up little girls who bought tainted "Jenna Baby" dolls.
How Kenneth makes people talk: Giving them fresh apple slices.
Best put-down of the night: "We produce more failed pilots than the French air force." -- Jack.
How Pete lost his hair: He hit a gypsy child with a car.
Thing I'd like to know more about: Jack's arm-wrestling victory over Kadafi.
Thing I wouldn't: Whether there's a place to get intimate bleaching procedures in Stamford, Conn.
Why Pete wants takeout from Hooters, even though this would seem to defeat the purpose of going to Hooters: "We'll know they touched it."
Signs Tracy Jordan may have been living in your house: Copies of "Black Yacht" magazine, a Rubik's Cube smashed out of anger, a grocery list consisting of different kinds of mustard.
Jenna's definition of writers: "Ugly people who take the paper and change the shapes on it."
Meanest thing Jack says to Liz: "Lemon, you look terrible. And I once watched you eat oysters with a cold."
Why Tracy cracked: "Sean Penn wanted me to go to Haiti with him, and I'm not strong enough for the pain and misery of a three-hour plane ride with Sean Penn."
The complete development history of "Take My Hand": "Years ago, Universal had a project by that name. It was a romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Patrick Dempsey ... then she dropped out and it was rewritten as a buddy comedy with Dempsey and Josh Hartnett, but everyone fell asleep during the table read so we moved it over to Telemundo where they tried to turn it into a variety show hosted by a supermodel and a soccer ball with a mustache ... then it was picked up by our low-budget thriller/high-budget porn division Splatter Flicks and it's now a horror movie starring any blonde actress." -- Jack.
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Jenna (Jane Krakowski) stars in "Take My Hand." Credit: Ali Goldstein / NBC