Hold on! Before reading this, make sure you’ve caught up with yesterday’s kickoff. Now, wave like a human being!
Season 4, Episode 7: “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001”
30 Rock’s ensemble cast began to sprawl out as the show went on, serving some characters better than others. In the first few seasons Jenna Maroney played an integral role as Liz’s best friend and working nightmare, the grotesquely narcissistic star of TGS who still made time to give her friend terrible life advice. But as Liz and Jack’s corporate relationship grew more personal, Jenna was often shunted into B and C stories; as her craziness became more outsized her position as Liz’s friend became more precarious. This is not to suggest Jane Krakowski doesn’t give everything she gets her all. But it does seem a bit of a shame in retrospect, especially when her presence can lift an entire episode into greatness, as it does with “Dealbreakers.” The early portion of season four introduced a new arc for Liz as she publishes a bestseller based on a catchphrase of one of Jenna’s TGS characters, but in another example of 30 Rock mocking the expectations of serialized stories (or, less charitably, losing interest in them), Liz’s shot at starring in a show based on the book is short-lived. After a disastrously hilarious shoot during which Liz turns into a bizarre marionette-approximation of a human (“Remember waving?” Pete yells helplessly) she locks herself in her dressing room and refuses to come out, just as Jenna often does, leading Jack to seek her counsel. This whole episode is about the fluidity of character traits; in Liz’s absence from the writer’s room, Frank, another supporting cast member I’ve yet to mention, steps into her role as den mother, scolding his colleagues and dressing in frumpy sweaters. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t know all these characters so well by now; by episode’s end the reset button has been hit but it’s still a jolt to a series that was starting to show its limits.
Season 4, Episode 13: “Anna Howard Shaw Day”
Valentine’s Day always seems to bring out the best in 30 Rock, and three years after “Up All Night” it delivered again with “Anna Howard Shaw Day.” The view this time is slightly more cynical though no less hilarious: the main storyline follows Liz as she tries to find someone to take her home after a dental surgery she’s scheduled for Valentine’s Day on purpose. While a normal sitcom might take this as an opportunity for Liz to reckon with the sad state of her love life, instead she digs in her heels to make a misguided stance on the legitimacy of her singleness, tearing up the release form she’s been told to sign and making up a story about a boyfriend coming to get her so she can leave alone. It ends about as well as you’d expect: with Liz hallucinating three of her ex-boyfriends in place of the nurses trying to hustle her out. Jack, of course, is the one who ends up coming to her rescue along with the newly introduced Avery Jessup, played with ferocious sexiness by Elizabeth Banks, an anchor on a Fox News-esque network who would be a part of Jack’s life for most of the rest of the series. All sitcoms have a built-in defect; as each season renewal comes along so does the need to extend the story. Fey and company often seemed unsure how to grant Liz with the relationship she deserves under these circumstances. What was once a single gal working on her night cheese could start to curdle into bitterness when the writers weren’t careful. It’s something the show would continue to struggle with even after Liz lands her supposed dream man at the end of this season. However, in a cultural landscape that still prizes couples above all else, Fey’s demented delivery of “Happy Valentine’s Day, nobody!” in the episode’s tag offers a welcome respite for the romantically-challenged out there.
Season 5, Episode 2: “When It Rains It Pours”
The introduction of ill advised new characters (ahem, Danny) and frustrating love triangle plotlines, not to mention a creeping sourness in tone, made for a baggy season four of 30 Rock so it’s understandable that fans felt some trepidation about what the fifth would bring. But if there were any lingering doubts of the show’s capacities as a joke machine, “When It Rains It Pours” puts them definitively to rest. As far as wall-to-wall hilarity goes it’s one of the most densely packed the show has ever managed, juggling three stories more adroitly than it had in years, the one-liners coming at a machine-gun pace. The A-plot gives a fresh spin on a theme the show often returned to over the years, typically with diminishing results: Liz’s ability to attract men. Fey wrung a lot of well-earned laughs out of her character’s supposed undateableness but this episode finds her newly confident after landing a pilot boyfriend and now the object of excessively gross male attention. She decides to parlay this into gaining the upper hand with a grouchy titles producer, played with gusto by Paul Giamatti (he can’t skate backwards but yeah, he’s pretty good), who in turn is using Liz to win over the affections of a lady of his own. Meanwhile, Tracy, who missed the birth of both his sons (once because he was making a French bread pizza and once because he forgot), is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his first daughter only to hail the Discovery Channel Cash Cab on the way to the hospital. Jack, who is also contemplating his own impending fatherhood, decides to tape himself offering advice to his future child. Both plots make great use of Morgan and Baldwin’s signature talents: Tracy’s meandering non-sequiturs allow him to answer the trivia questions in a clear dig at Slumdog Millionaire, while Jack’s dramatic pauses can make even the most bizarre advice sound legitimate. It’s not an episode with lasting consequences, but as a reminder of 30 Rock at the height of its joke crafting, it’s essential.
Season 5, Episode 17: “Queen of Jordan”
Viewers would be forgiven for tuning into the original airing of this episode and thinking there had been some mistake. While the show played with its format earlier in the fifth season with a live episode, “Queen of Jordan” feels unique for how fully, and believably, it gives itself up to another genre, in this case the sort of soapy reality television popularized by Bravo. From the opening credits to the low-rent production values and shaky cams it’s a faithful recreation that would risk being off-putting if it wasn’t so consistently on-the-mark. It helps that the plotlines of Angie Jordan’s reality show dovetail so nicely with what was already going on in the TGS universe and how the characters we know and love react to the dissonance of being aware they’re on camera. After several misunderstandings and pratfalls, Jack tries to get the producers to cast him in a more flattering light (in one of the episode’s best long-running gags, an on-screen title refers to him as “Tracy’s Gay Boss”). Jenna, unsurprisingly, tries to insert herself into the drama, a scheme that, unsurprisingly, backfires at every turn, often at her own hand (“I drank all the throwing wine!”). Liz, meanwhile, attempts to use Angie’s presence in the building to convince her missing star, Tracy, to come back from Africa, a thread that ends in surprising pathos once it’s revealed Angie has already begged him herself. Against all odds, the peripheral stars of “Queen of Jordan,” introduced here under the presumption we’ll never see them again, fit in with the gang seamlessly; the specificity of D’Fawn (played by the magnificent Titus Burgess, who would go on to co-star in Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), who can’t remember his catchphrase; Randi, who bought a Strippercise Studio after being shot by a cop; and Portia, who reads the papers, shows affection for the reality format while simultaneously eviscerating its shallowness. It’s a gambit for sure but one the show is richer for having taken, an expansion of the 30 Rock world long after that seemed possible.
Season 6, Episode 7: “The Tuxedo Begins”
This may be a controversial pick, but hear me out. I admit I kind of hated this episode when it first aired; it felt so aggressively in-your-face with its unpleasantness. However after eight and change years of living in New York City, I’ve come around to it. 30 Rock was always a quintessential New York show, despite the fact that much of the action takes place inside one of its most famous buildings rather than out on the streets, one that often had a love-hate relationship with the metropolis that mirrors that of many of the people who make it their home including Fey (classic 30 Rock commentary). Never was that more barbed than in “The Tuxedo Begins” which manages to mock Baldwin’s rumored mayoral run, the aims of Occupy Wall Street vs. the city elite, and subway etiquette all wrapped in a goofy (and rather belated) Dark Knight parody. The episode looks a lot better a few years removed from the controversies it was addressing (and the movies it was satirizing) and more pointed as it gets increasingly difficult to live within your means in the city. The plot finds Liz and Jack butting heads over where New York is headed; they both agree nowhere good but for different reasons. Liz thinks people have lost their sense of basic human decency. Jack, who was recently mugged by a white man in Dockers, believes the have-nots are rising against the rich. Both take matters into their own hands: Jack decides he’s the only answer to the problems facing the city’s wealthy, declaring a run for office largely just for show (a gag that particularly stings in these Trumpian times.) Liz, after contracting a cold and donning an old-lady wig, realizes that the more grotesque she makes herself, the more the city becomes her oyster. How you react to this will depend on how acceptable you find women making themselves ugly for comedy (I personally am in great favor) but regardless, it’s another great example of 30 Rock and its performers fully committing to an absurd bit, relevance be damned.
Season 6, Episode 18: “Live From Studio 6-H”
A live episode is already a dicey proposition for a show that relies as heavily on zippy editing and quick cutaways as 30 Rock. This showed in their first attempt during the fifth season, which felt scattered and stilted in comparison. But the 30 Rock crew has a stubborn streak when it comes to these things and they went for it again in the sixth with much more solid results. Comedy shows can often feel deliberately constructed; when that works against the jokes it’s a problem but when done right and tight it can be sublime. It can also feel like overkill though, especially in a television landscape where dramas are often engineered seasons in advance. Thus the looser, more collaborative energy of “Live From Studio 6-H” feels reinvigorating for a viewer who may have tiring of the same old formula. It helps that the format is worked into the episode’s plotline: Jack, for budgetary reasons, wants to do away with TGS’s live show and tape it instead. While Liz warms up to the idea, Kenneth strongly objects, locking Liz, Jack, and the rest of the cast in Tracy’s dressing room to make his case that live T.V. is a tradition worth upholding. While light in content, the storyline allows for several ace “flashbacks” to send-ups of The Honeymooners and Laugh-In, which is partly an excuse for celebrity cameos (Jon Hamm! Amy Poehler! Jimmy Fallon…) and partly a celebration of T.V. history. If at times it feels like a string of vaguely related sketches, it’s also one of the strongest episodes of SNL in years.
Season 7, Episode 7: “Mazel Tov, Dummies”
Weddings are a sitcom staple, one to which 30 Rock hasn’t been immune, but it always felt like an open question as to whether the show’s heroine would ever have one. This could play as empowering or sad depending on the suitor Liz was saddled with, which is why it was gratifying as the series made its final lap to see her paired with someone who truly felt well suited for her. The shortened episode order of the last season, due in part to Fey’s pregnancy, meant viewers had to accept Criss (played by James Marsden doing a credible job of offsetting his startling handsomeness with an endearing slacker streak) fairly quickly. But the need for compression works in the episode’s favor: after discovering Dennis was able to adopt after getting hitched, Liz and Criss have an impromptu engagement and plan for a same-day city hall ceremony (while still managing to register at Popcorn Palace). It neatly avoids drawing the wedding out as a season-long arc while also addressing Liz’s inner conflict over how “special” she wants her day to be (“Liz, it’s okay to be a human woman!” “No, it’s the worst because of society!”). When she finally admits last minute that she does indeed want the wedding she dreamed of as a cynical child, it leads to a lovely “getting the gang together” service complete with flowers stolen from a hospital by Dennis, rings swiped from a police auction by Criss, and Liz dressed in a Princess Leia costume. It’s weird and sweet and completely true to the characters we’ve come to love over the years. That it’s not the end to Liz’s story makes it even better.
Season 7, Episode 10: “Florida”
The end of a beloved series is always bittersweet for fans but there’s also something immensely satisfying about a show being able to end on its own terms. For a while 30 Rock almost seemed hampered by its continued renewals; plotlines fizzled out, characters disappeared or grew increasingly unbelievable as human beings. But with a finale finally in sight, the show found great freedom and creative resurgence in tying up loose ends and, in the case of “Florida,” finally addressing questions that had hung over the entire show. Following the passing of Jack’s mother Colleen in the previous episode (and it seems a great shame that I’m only noting Elaine Stritch’s amazing performance now) he travels with Liz to Florida to handle her estate. Once there they meet Colleen’s live-in nurse Martha who speaks fondly of a woman much funnier and light-hearted than the prickly, racist hellion we’ve come to know over the years. The reveal that the two were actually lesbian lovers is of less importance than the scene it leads to: Liz and Jack forced to share a bed and reckon with the romantic road their relationship never took. While “shippers” were likely in the minority of 30 Rock’s fan base, there is relief in how the show finally chose to bring it out in the open, not because either has regretful feelings but because both characters are coming to terms with what they are and aren’t able to be (for Liz it’s spontaneous, for Jack it’s happy). Their mentor/mentee relationship was such an ingrained part of the series and so unique to it, something that was wisely never betrayed by introducing sex into the mix. As Jack says, what they have is so much more interesting than dating would be. The final stretch of episodes would show both characters moving forward, Liz with her newly adopted children and Jack as CEO, but in many ways this feels like the emotional climax of their journeys, a meaningful acknowledgement from characters we love that they also love one another in their own special way. In the end, 30 Rock proved itself to be as much about that as anything else.