The Emmys are boring and Emmy voters absolutely keep giving awards to the same darned things every year. But the reason why I didn’t write one of those “When are Emmy Voters Going To Freshen Things Up?” articles this year is simple: Wanna know my favorite drama currently on TV? That’d be “Mad Men.” Wanna know my favorite comedy currently on TV? Well, that’s probably “30 Rock.” So who am I to complain?
There’s more competition in that second category, though, depending on how much I’m enjoying “The Office” or whether “How I Met Your Mother” or “The Big Bang Theory” are having good weeks, or even if “Chuck” is having a funny episode rather than a dramatic save-the-world episode. And I’ve said it before, the “Racial Sensitivity” episode of “Better Off Ted” was perhaps the best single comedy episode of the year.
But I return to “30 Rock,” which gets its fourth season off to a belated start on Thursday (Oct. 15). Yes, the writers often forget to tell stories and just concentrate on a string of barbs and punchlines that can leave you numb. Yes, the over-reliance on guest stars often stifles the comedy and doesn’t appear to help with ratings at all. And sure, few shows have been so comfortable with going completely inside-baseball and leaving average viewers in the dust. But if you’re asking the comedy that makes me laugh most frequently? There isn’t much doubt.
NBC sent out the season’s first two “30 Rock” episodes. So how do they stack up? Review after the break…
The short answer is that the season’s opening “30 Rock” installments are scattershot, but they’re also adequately full of mirth. With steady freshman “Community,” steadily improving “Parks & Recreation” and the frequently sublime “The Office,” “30 Rock” completes what remains TV’s best two-hour comedy block, a block without the lulls of a “Hank” or whichever Animation Domination entry has decided not to be funny in any given week.
“30 Rock” returns in a grumpy and meta mood with an episode titled “Season 4,” a half-hour of grumbling about GE and about NBC-Universal corporate policy and about shows that condescendingly attempt to cater to Middle America and try to goose ratings and the bottom line with product plugs and new characters. This is a show that’s never stopped at just biting the hand that feeds it. “30 Rock” prefers to gnaw off an entire arm.
There’s an anger that goes through the first couple episodes that bears strange fruit. If you get a kick out of a good Barry Diller/Ben Silverman joke (not even slightly masked), “30 Rock” comes out strong. If you’re outraged at CEO bonuses in an economic downturn and want to funnel that outrage through the expert bluster of the reassuringly liberal Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock” comes out strong. And if you’re ready for the first primetime sitcom jokes about Malia and Sasha Obama, “30 Rock” comes out strong. Politically, economically and pop culturally, “30 Rock” is more of-its-time than any show currently airing and its satirical edge is sharper and more current than the blundering “Saturday Night Live” has attempted all season.
But as Master Yoda taught us all, anger sometimes leads to the dark side, or at least to episodes that are more focused on taking aim at not-so-sacred cows than to well-arced stories with a beginning, a middle and an end (much less carefully considered B-plots).
This is not “30 Rock” working at its best. Jokes that the writers would often knock out of the park fall in for safe singles. [Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of post-season baseball for the past two weeks.] An elaborate set-up for Jenna’s (Jane Krakowski) Swedish werewolf movie, for example, yields a chuckle or two, but it’s impossible not to expect a bit more from the series that gave us “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” [The secret may just be to lay off the lycanthropic humor.] Similarly, subplots involving Pete (Scott Adsit) and Liz (Tina Fey) sneaking around behind the cast’s back to scout new talent or the situation that turns Liz and Tracy (Tracy Morgan) into roommates don’t deliver on what would seem to be huge potential. And Jack Donaghy’s transition into an Obama Era CEO hasn’t been as smooth or creative as, say, the transition Stephen Colbert’s late night alter-ego had to undergo.
The best “30 Rock” episodes have a unique comic build in which all of the small gags and seeming toss-offs coalesce into a payoff. Otherwise, it’s just a loose assemblage of cut-aways, references and snark delivered by a seasoned cast, like a so-so episode of “The Simpsons,” where you know you’re laughing, but you don’t remember anything that connected the jokes, much less what happened to the characters in the episode. But when the show is working, it can get away with utter ridiculousness.
I’d use like last spring’s McFlurry episode, on something where it was the show’s storytelling that made the unacceptable acceptable. Too often in the season’s first two episodes, I found myself going, “Well, I guess that’s funny, but but the writers didn’t do the legwork to justify that punchline.” But there I was sitting in the Salt Lake City airport confusing the other passengers at the gate with my chuckles, because Baldwin, Fey, Morgan, McBrayer and Krakowski are all deserving of the awards recognition they’ve received and they’re good enough to carry the show past bumpy patches.
It’s my hope that after a long summer’s hiatus, the “30 Rock” writers just had some things they needed to get off their chest, a few rants that were building up inside and had to get out. And hey, at least they had things to say. Despite the same summer off, the “SNL” writers haven’t had a single fresh observation in three Saturday episodes and a month of Thursdays.
As a last note, the post-credit sequence in Thursday’s premiere includes the episode’s two biggest laughs. I know that “The Jay Leno Show” can be repellent enough to make you end turn away at 9:55, but stick with “30 Rock” until the end.
“30 Rock” premieres on Thursday, Oct. 15 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.