Season premiere review: ’30 Rock’ – ‘The Beginning of the End’

“30 Rock” is back for its final season, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I spend a full hour with Gary Sinise’s band…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of first season “30 Rock” on Netflix for nostalgia’s sake, and two things have struck me: 1)For a show that I remember as taking a while to figure itself out, those early episodes (even something as early as “Jack the Writer”) hold up awfully well; and 2)”30 Rock” was a much saner show back then.

I’m not even talking about the characterization of Liz, since I think the show pulled back on making her quite so crazy/weird/pathetic a year or two ago. Nor am I talking about Tracy, who was nuts from the start. I mean the universe of “30 Rock” itself was far more normal in season 1 than it is now. We’ve long since crossed the line into live-action cartoon territory, with occasional moments of humanity between Jack and Liz, and the joke-writing has to be incredibly good to sustain that tone.

Fortunately, the writing is still incredible, as evidenced by another episode so packed with great throwaway jokes that half of my time writing this review was spent on picking the best intro line. (I had it narrowed down to a half dozen, then mentioned my difficulty picking on Twitter, and was greeted with a dozen I hadn’t even thought of, but were equally worthy. Finally, I let Linda Holmes decide for me, and she went off the board with Gary Sinise.)

So, no, the Jack Donaghy of the first season would not be so aggressively, blatantly, trying to tank an entire network(*), let alone acting (remember his on-camera panic in “Jack-Tor”?) as God(**) in a horrible new cop show. In the current incarnation of the show, it makes perfect, hilarious sense. Of course, Jack could get away with greenlighting (with a literal green light) all these horrible shows without anyone but Liz noticing, because who can stand sitting at the non-CEO table at the business school reunion?

(*) And given the dire straits of the real NBC throughout the lifespan of “30 Rock,” I particularly enjoyed Liz assuming Jack had been trying to do this for seven or eight years, when it had only been a few weeks.

(**) The only thing missing from that show was a more explicit callback to Baldwin’s role in “Malice,” but I suppose the show already did that back in season 3’s “St. Valentine’s Day.”  

What was great about all the bad shows is how close to plausible so many of them were. Joe Rogan as Mandela isn’t that far off from the CW doing a “Beauty and the Beast’ remake where the Beast is a really hot guy with a faint scar on his cheek. “God Cop” isn’t that far off from the many shows in development this year about historical figures who, it turns out, fought crime in their youths. “Homonyms” (hosted by “SNL” writer and Jimmy Fallon announcer Steve Higgins) isn’t that much more absurd a waste of time than half the game shows developed in the last 10 years.

The other storylines were more mixed, but still funny enough to work. I’m still not crazy about Hazel, nor about Kenneth turning back into Kenneth after his brief reinvention last season. But I enjoyed Tracy realizing that he’s by far the most stable person at “TGS,” and the dinner party was just so bizarre (Kenneth murdering a sturgeon with a hammer, Tracy’s snake in the oven, non-sensical small talk, everyone eating Dharma Initiative ice cream) that it worked in spite of my dislike of how some of these characters are being used of late. And though the Maid of Honor story had Jenna at her most sociopathic, it also had the dead dove store, Liz having witch undertones, Jenna wanting to find a way to borrow Jessica Biel’s youth, Jenna flying (the surest sign yet of the cartooniness of it all), etc.

I respect Tina Fey’s desire to end the show while it’s still good. But an episode like this one just reminds me of how much I’m going to miss “30 Rock” when it’s gone.

Some other thoughts:

* Anyone care to guess whether the Paas running gag was product integration or not? And is it funnier if it really was?

* Jonathan returns, now that Maulik Pancholy is no longer part of the “Whitney” cast. A win for everyone, with the possible exception of Pancholy’s bank account.

* “Good Peacock to you.”

* Jack is good friends with Bane. Of course.

* Tracy is “the black Tyler Perry.” Of course.

* Liz makes a “surprise Lemon party” joke under her breath, and it is at this point that I once again warn you that if you don’t know what a lemon party is, DO NOT Google it, DO NOT ask anyone else what it is, DO NOT try to find out about it in any way. No one gave me this warning after the show first told that joke in one of the episodes with Buck Henry, and I am forever sorry about that. Trust me – you are much, much better off not knowing. I am not joking. 

* I’ve seen this one listed both as “The Beginning of the End,” and also as “Episode 701.” If the latter is official, it wouldn’t be the first time “30 Rock” has just gone with an episode number as a title.

What did everybody else think?