Ten years ago this month a much-hyped new series premiered on NBC. Marketed as a rollicking satire of a very recognizable late-night sketch comedy show it boasted a starry cast and a strong TV auteur behind the scenes. It was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and it tanked, hard. Its earnest investment in the trivial backstage drama of its characters, along with a tenuous grasp of what makes for good, or at least believable, comedy, doomed it to the cancellation bin after one season.
It’s odd now in hindsight to remember just how much of an underdog 30 Rock was when it debuted on the same network and in the same month as Studio 60. The brainchild of Tina Fey and based on her tenure as head writer of Saturday Night Live, the pedigree was more untested and it shows in the first several episodes. But voice and vision are paramount in a comedy and, at a time when NBC was struggling to find itself post Must-See-TV-Thursday, Fey and company stood out: the jokes were quick to the point of weaponization, often literally coming a second at a time, with a commitment to character beats as strong as to the outright bizarre set-piece. It also benefitted from a dynamite central pairing with Fey as the biographical-to-a-point Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, her right-wing blowhard of a boss and singular comic creation. Even in the sloppily paced pilot their scenes have a spark that carried over seven seasons and remained reliable whenever the storytelling faltered over the 138 episodes that eventually ran. Ten years on, in the midst of so much “peak TV,” no currently airing comedy quite comes close to its alchemical mix of breakneck zaniness and reluctant heart, though Fey’s own Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does its gosh-darndest. For a show that often worked deliberately against the serialization trend, 30 Rock amply rewards re-visiting and here are the fifteen best episodes to get you started, whether it’s your first time through or your thirtieth.
Season 1, Episode 7: “Tracy Does Conan”
There were glimmers early on, of course: Liz giving herself the Heimlich, Jack’s inability to act without a mug in each hand, the rat king. But this was the first truly brilliant episode of 30 Rock, and possibly one of the best episodes of comedy ever. Where to even begin? Aside from the genius of combining Liz’s need to eat after giving blood with her impulse to break up with Dennis with Tracy’s crazy pre-Conan behavior into a natural comedic pressure cooker, there’s the dilemma over Pete’s Stone Philips wig (“You know, I used to be very rich”), Kenneth’s Drug Rite odyssey (“Frankly, Ladonica, you have not been real helpful”), the introduction of Leo Spacemen (“Boy I’m being awfully open with you, miss. I should not have taken those blue things”), Liz’s hinted-at history with Conan O’Brian (“Let’s not do this, Elizabeth”), and the immortal Donaghy response to why he’s wearing a tux: “It’s after six, what am I a farmer?” After a few weeks of getting to know the gang, this was the first episode where the stakes felt truly high for Liz, if the stakes of whether Tracy will keep his pants on during his Conan appearance could be considered high, and as viewers we’re put as much through the wringer as our lady hero. It’s in a state of constant movement, goosed along by Jeff Richmond’s unimpeachable score, like watching a juggler maneuver flaming clubs. While the excitement comes from the possibility of it toppling at any moment, the satisfaction comes from everything working perfectly in synch.
Season 1, Episode 13: “Up All Night”
While perhaps the more popular choice in this stretch would be “Black Tie,” the episode preceding this one, my heart belongs to “Up All Night,” when the seeds planted in “Tie” truly blossom. Consider Isabella Rossellini, one of the first of many inspired stunt castings the show would do, as Jack’s estranged wife Bianca. Her appearance in “Tie” was delightfully unhinged, only hinting at the parasitic connection she and her ex share, but “Night” builds on this in fascinating ways as she and Jack argue over their divorce proceedings, which end up turning on an Arby’s franchise (has there been a moment more sublime than “Oh dammit, Johnny, you know I love my Big Beef n’ Cheddar”?) It’s perhaps the first time we’re let in on the depths of Jack’s craziness as he goes on an all-night Valentine’s bender, epically captured in a single morphing montage of devolving drinks and companions. 30 Rock was never a show for typical holiday episodes and “Night” exemplifies this. Sure, Tracy and Angie’s role-playing is sweetly deranged (as is his penchant for literally shouting out “Roleplay!” during the act) and there’s a rom-com adorableness to Liz and Floyd’s flower-mix-up meet-cute. But as the show would prove time and again, the real lasting partnership and understanding was between Jack and Liz. “Marry, boff, kill, which do you want to do?” Liz asks her boss about Bianca, and it’s the despondent honesty of his answer to her that lingers long after any of their subsequent love affairs.
Season 1, Episode 18: “Fireworks”
Perhaps one of the more undervalued aspects of this show is its willingness to bite the hand that feeds it, often savagely. It’s a through-line from the beginning but becomes most prominent in “Fireworks,” which sees Jack tussling for the first time with Devon Banks, played with vanity-free, deep-throated gusto by Will Arnett, a rivalry that would go on to be one of the series’ best long-running storylines. In one of 30 Rock’s more eerily prescient moments, Devon has recently pioneered the micro-sitcom, a riff on SNL’s newly popular viral videos that unintentionally foretold our Vine-saturated future. Jack, seeking to gain the upper hand over his nemesis, proposes an old-school spectacle to the network suits: a live fireworks spectacular in Midtown. Part of the episode’s genius is how good this sounds in theory (like, say, a live staging of Peter Pan); Jack’s heart is in the right place but in practice, it’s the sort of unmitigated disaster only possible on television (like, say, a live staging of Peter Pan). And I haven’t even gotten to the many other memorable gags yet: Tracy wrestling with his newly revealed descendance from Thomas Jefferson, which manages to find time for an ace Maury Povich dream sequence (“I rode a horse all the way from heaven!”); the first truly great showcase for Kenneth as he “seduces” Banks; and Liz pretending to be an alcoholic to get closer to Floyd. Fey and her writers clearly adore the medium they’ve made their careers in but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a merciless skewering at their hands every once in awhile.
Season 2, Episode 4: “Rosemary’s Baby”
30 Rock has never shied away from depicting how tough it can be for women in the entertainment industry. From Liz’s exaggerated undateableness to Jenna’s psychotic insecurity, it’s a crucial component of the show’s very DNA. But the theme gains both a poignant and hilarious edge with “Rosemary’s Baby,” which features guest star Carrie Fisher as the titular Ghost of Lemon’s Future, an old writing hero of hers whose lack of opportunity and penchant for drinking wine out of a thermos all day has caused her talents to wither away. It’s a canny bit of casting, and not just because Star Wars nerd Fey is clearly a fan. Fisher made a second career out of how Hollywood, along with her own addictions and shortcomings, fucked her over and the role of Rosemary allows her to tear into the system with a relish that actresses her age are rarely afforded. “You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for me. I broke barriers for you,” she opines after she’s brought Liz back to her apartment when Jack fires them both. “I didn’t have kids, you’re my kid. You’re my kid who never calls!” It’s a funny monologue but there’s real anguish behind it, both a railing against the compromises women must make and a good case for buying in when you have the chance. I would be remiss in not mentioning this is also the episode where Jack engages in a therapeutic role-play with Tracy, possibly the single funniest scene the show has done and an epic showcase for Baldwin’s talents. While it seems at first not to have much to do with the central plotline, it does demonstrate Jack’s dedication to his employees, often beyond reason. “Never go with a hippie to a second location,” he tells Lemon when she comes crawling back for her job. With someone around to dispense advice like that, why would you ever want to leave?
Season 2, Episode 13: “Succession”
The writers strike led to a truncated second season for 30 Rock but Fey & co. made the most of it, returning from the hiatus with a rip-roaring run of episodes, the centerpiece of which is “Succession.” While I said in my intro that the show often resisted serialization, “Succession” is the exception that proves the rule; thanks to the unintended break, its payoffs required a long memory from its dedicated audience and rewarded them amply. The Jack-Devon rivalry, introduced back in season one, had been ramping up in the early half of season two as they jockeyed for Don Geiss’s CEO job. Here it erupts as Geiss (played with gimlet-eyed sparkle by Rip Torn) chooses Jack as his successor and promptly falls into a diabetic-induced coma before his wish is made public, allowing Devon to push his fiancée, who just happens to be Geiss’s clueless daughter, into the position. Liz’s long suffering of her own employees’ cluelessness also plays a huge part of the plot; when Jack offers to promote her into his place she takes to the corporate atmosphere surprisingly well, bantering with the wrinkly old guys at lunches and getting business drunk (Resulting in one of my favorite Liz lines ever uttered: “Hey nerds, guess who’s got two thumbs, speaks limited French, and hasn’t cried once today? This moi.”) That it’s all wrapped in an elaborate, pitch-perfect Amadeus parody (as is Tracy’s B-plot of creating a porn video game as a legacy for his sons) proves the show was as committed to pathos as it was to goofiness, the jokes landing as hard as Jack’s fallen face when he discovers his fate at the episode’s end.
Season 3, Episode 5: “Reunion”
Is Liz a good person? It’s possible, perhaps even advisable, to go through the entire run of the show not thinking about it but years before the debut of Girls and the thousands of think pieces that ensued, 30 Rock was grappling with the question of protagonist likeability and never more openly than in “Reunion.” Usually the sort of plot mined for more sentimental humor, Fey turns the typical clichés of this sitcom staple on its head. Reluctant to attend her reunion because she believed herself to be the object of ridicule in her small Pennsylvania town (delightfully named White Haven) Liz is persuaded to go by Jack who tells her that since those days she’s blossomed into someone the “whittling IHOP monkeys” she once knew will envy. Once there though she’s surprised to learn that she was considered a bully in high school, her attempts to ingratiate herself now too little too late. Jack, by the dictates of sitcom logic, has ended up at the reunion too after Don Geiss’s announcement that he’ll be staying on as CEO throws him into a tailspin of self-doubt; when he’s mistaken for a student named Larry Braverman he embraces the charade whole-heartedly, eager to take a vacation from himself. Their divergent nights come to a head when they’re thrown into a closet for Seven Minutes in Heaven and the ensuing blowout between them gets nasty, Jack calling out Liz for her tendency to deflect emotion with humor and Liz throwing Jack’s recent career disappointment back in his face. It’s a place lesser shows might blink from but 30 Rock doubles down by proving Jack and Liz probably aren’t great people for White Haven. But they’re great for showbiz, and each other. “Suck it monkeys! Lemon out!” she shouts at the end and it’s a testament to the show that we recognize both the bitterness and triumph in it.
Season 3, Episode 10: “Generalissimo”
One of the dicier propositions for any long-running series is the love interest, where the yearning for dynamic, well-matched characters bumps up against the naturally short life span of stunt casting. 30 Rock ran into this problem early on by introducing Floyd in season one, an appealing suitor for Liz whose charm was subsequently dismantled with each reappearance in later seasons. Most of Jack’s early love affairs were played largely for laughs. (Phoebe with the hollow bird bones; his clandestine phone calls with Condi Rice and Maureen Dowd.) His romantic impulses always stood in stark contrast to Lemon’s; he often falls heedlessly while Liz is cautious to a fault. But no matter the method, the outcome is the same: relationships for both are brief and often end disastrously. Having scored the double coup of Salma Hayek and Jon Hamm as guest stars, 30 Rock decides to lean into the inevitability of their guests’ eventual departures and dial up the zaniness: Jack, hoping to win over his new Spanish girlfriend’s distrustful abuela, discovers that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the villain of her favorite telenova (played by Alec Baldwin with a John Waters moustache and terrible accent). Meanwhile, Liz begins taking tips from said villain’s dastardly behavior to win over her impossibly handsome new neighbor Dr. Baird, which begins with opening his mail and climaxes in accidentally roofieing him. The escalation of these twinned plots makes for a satirical takedown of rom-com behaviors that also exploits the pleasures of such tropes, always a sweet spot for the show. We know these romances will end swiftly but we too want to enjoy them while they last.
We’ll be back tomorrow to reveal the best of the rest of the series!