What can I say about 30 Rock as of late? The best I can come up with is, “Meh.”
The characters seem worn out—thrust too often into predictable situations that don’t cut to their very core, and which, accordingly, yield feeble results.
The second of the two episodes that aired this Thursday featured a gag that could have applied to the show’s own present weaknesses: Jack, talking with TGS writers, wishes to make himself perfectly clear that their show is not producing good work. Smash cut to one of their sketches, a courtroom scene of content characteristically puerile for the show, except that, to top it off, one of the set walls falls over during the sketch.
A similar shoddy construction has undermined 30 Rock lately, which is not to say there aren’t still a number of funny moments. There are--the one-liners, pop cultural references and conceptual gags will always be there. However, the show’s framework—its plotting and characterization—has not been strong enough as of late to prevent a series of feeble implosions of plotting, which mire richer comic gold mines in the ooze of feckless exchanges between tired characters.
But now on to the details. In “Idiots Are People Three!”, the second and final installment in the "Idiots" sequence, Will Arnett returns as Devon Banks, who immediately reveals to Jack he possesses a wealth of footage of Tracy insulting various minority groups during various comic routines. Banks seeks to leverage this collection over Jack, who he thinks can use his influence to insure his children’s acceptance into the elite, prestigious St. Matthews School. As a cool side note, Devon reveals he went to Northwestern and majored in “Confidence.”
The Idiots’ Protest continues as Tracy, with Denise Richards as his right-hand ditz, convinces Liz to read them an apology off of an Etch-A-Sketch in front of assembled media. First Liz admits that she used “an offensive word”—“idiot”—to characterize a particular group of people. Next, she must recite a litany of things that Idiots have brought into the world that should earn them recognition and appreciation. Liz goes along with the list, until she strongly objects to one particular item—water parks. Water parks are not fun, she explains--people “boo you when you walk back down the stairs”.
This is a golden line, which combines insight into Liz’s character with a social phenomenon that blurs the line between the all-too-plausible and wonderfully absurd. However, in total, the Idiots’ Protest still comes across as a lazy and inadequate way to address Tracy Morgan’s real life hate speech.
Meanwhile, Pete is still unconscious in the supply closet after he accidentally inhaled mercury fumes last episode. Kenneth, Jenna and Kelsey Grammar, the so-called “Best Friends Club,” must get his body back to his office without anyone taking notice. So, of course, Grammar will put on a one-man show in which he plays Abe Lincoln to distract the TGS team, while Jenna and Kenneth move Pete.
This storyline comes off as entirely extraneous. It takes up valuable screen time, features Pete unconscious and semi-naked as a main source of humor, and builds to nothing, really. Grammar’s Lincoln routine is faintly funny and but also comes across as overly frivolous, having no grounding in anything of relevance to the show or to real life (though I am admittedly not very familiar with Grammar—I welcome elucidation).
Anyway, Liz and boy toy Criss also have a plot line, which, of course, involves Jack. How could it not? After all, Liz is his “subordi-friend”—he must meddle in her affairs with the unbalanced perspective of a boss. He’s gotten inside Liz’s head and caused her to doubt her relationship with Criss.
This plotline eventually dovetails with the Idiots’, as Liz has the epiphany that she is, in fact, an idiot for allowing Jack to stir up doubts about Criss. However, the couple’s subsequent reunification doesn’t register strongly enough, as the show did not spend enough time establishing Liz and Criss’ dynamic before destabilizing it here. The audience doesn’t have a good enough sense of how the two fit together--their shared history, insides jokes, awkward or emotionally scarring moments (witness Dennis Duffy as a prime example)—and therefore can’t feel any which way about them making up.--
The second episode opens with a beacon of inspiration and hope. A promo plays for a movie in the same vein of Love Actually or Garry Marshall’s New Years Eve. However, it soon feels slightly off--especially when Emma Stone appears, fretting about her bleak Martin Luther King Jr. Day romantic prospects to Andy Samberg, who then mewls “too bad we’re only platonic friends” and glides off. The film, Martin Luther King Day, also purportedly stars Sir Ian McKellan and will never come to a theatre near you, but does provide a neat and clever opening.
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode generally fails to attain such comedic heights. Tracy becomes depressed because he already owns everything. This provides some decent laughs, but the storyline is strangely abandoned for most of the episode and thus remains in embryonic state when it is finally revisited toward the end.
In his never-ending pursuit of a more efficient organization, Jack decides to eliminate the page program once and for all. Of course, this plan ends up backfiring (more proof that Kenneth can never leave) when, without Kenneth on duty, Jack has no one to blame for a logistical flub (although Jack promises “someone’s to blame and I will find him or, more likely, her”).
Kenneth too has some good moments, but the storyline veers into awkward, inappropriate territory when Hank Hooper, Kabletown’s head and Jack’s boss, shows up, a character I’ve never felt has quite fit into the show and who here proves a disconcerting presence.
A development from promising beginning to trite ending similarly mars Liz’s storyline. She and Jenna have a bizarrely funny and surreal sequence where Liz disguises herself as her self-absorbed star, who can then avoid a streetside assembly of angry PETA activists.
However, the two have a fight, and Liz now must find a new best friend. I appreciated this unexpected mid-episode redirection of purpose—in my experience a generally effective plotting device. However, this plotline then takes a turn for the uninspired and needlessly creepy—Liz stakes out a bathroom at Barnes and Noble, a place she is apparently quite familiar with--the logic being that she would have loads in common with anyone she meets there.
Sure enough, she meets a bizarro version of herself, whom, of course, she can’t stand, and we are treated to a double dose of Liz. Both of them whine and Liz quickly can’t stand it. This development as a whole feels arbitrarily tacked-on—an unimaginative way to direct Liz back into friendship with Jenna.
Jenna herself has been hanging out with her group of celebrity friends, which, humorously includes Charlie, of "Charlie Bit Me" autotune fame. Nice! It is pretty funny though.
Everything wraps up with a cheesy New Years Eve style reunification scene: Liz hugs Jenna, Tracy greets his presents, etc. As in this last bit, I couldn’t help but feel that, overall, although the episode started out with a clear and focused intent to lampoon the formulaic plotting and superficial characterization found in films such as Marshall’s, the episode itself ended up falling victim to these very pitfalls.