“Today You Are a Man” represents a decent attempt to get 30 Rock back on track after a string of uneven episodes. The various storylines here feel more well-balanced than the previous few, both in terms of the screen time they receive and in their tone. It’s not a brilliant episode, but an abundance of good one-liners and an underlying effort by the cast and crew make it enjoyable on the whole.
Contract renegotiation time has come, and Liz battles Jack to receive a better package than she’s held for the past six years. In the process, she stumbles upon a business negotiating video Jack starred in nearly a decade ago, and tries to use the techniques he teaches against him. Storylines that play Liz and Jack off each other--as foils or adversaries—have generally yielded sharp results, and this one creates a relatively humorous showdown, as well as a series of amusing pre-negotiation intimidation tactics and psych-ups. One funny gag has Liz face Jack while rotating a pair of metallic baoding balls in her palm. Jack immediately knows that she’s “toying with his manhood”—this is apparently one of the tips she has gleaned from his video.
Seeing Jack star in these instructional videos provides a good reminder of how well Baldwin has embodied the character over the years. His interpretation is devoid of any self-consciousness; Jack is as blithely oblivious and self-assured as they come, whether he’s unwittingly serving as the voice of “Pronoucify.com” or, here, battling Liz in a mano-a-mano contest of negotiating mettle.
Tracy and Jenna are tapped to entertain at a Bar Mitzvah, but, upon arrival, quickly realize they’re not quite what the host and his son expected. The two TGS stars would just as soon collect their fee and skedaddle, but the host has dirt on both of them and uses it to blackmail them into staying and performing the Transformers-themed material the man-to-be expects. The pair also, for some reason, attempt Abbot and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First” routine, which we learn is a miserable failure. The father berates Tracy, “You’re gonna have to do better than that pathetic butchering of 'Who’s On First,'” to which Tracy responds, “Who’s on first! That’s the phrase I couldn’t remember”.
Kenneth’s is-he or is-he-no-longer-a-page shenanigans continue. Jack fired him last episode, but he returns here one last time to say goodbye, before permanently (or temporarily, I’m assuming) setting off to pursue higher, more noble things--or at least, as Suze Orman advises him, a better-paying job (plus, his church requires a 110% tithe). A particularly funny joke comes from the fact that none of the TGSers noticed he wasn’t in the office the previous day. We see in flashback Jenna ordering something to, “Move,” before kicking out of her way a recycling bin with a dash of orange coloring on the top that she thinks is Kenneth. Similarly, even with Kenneth in the room, Pete mistakes a broom for the poor page, only realizing his mistake after it clatters to the ground.
This plot eventually meets Tracy and Jenna’s, and provides Tracy with a good moment. He and Jenna have vowed to address their problems by going to their actual roots, instead of taking the emotionally immature and thus, actorly, route of displacing their emotional discomfort away from its actual source. Kenneth’s replacement page, a girl known as “Hazlewassername,” disorients Tracy and causes him to lash out at her. However, remembering he and Jenna’s resolution, he admits, “It’s just that I saw a new page, and I’m not used to change since I was raised in foster care.” Like it or not, that’s the truth, and it’s good to see the show staying away from the “Tracy is an Idiot” crap that plagued "Idiots Are People Two!", instead here giving the character a more psychologically grounded and honest treatment.
The episode coheres better as the storylines feel better thought through and don’t have as many abrupt changes in tone. However, a few moments do feel forced, such as an instance in which Liz delivers the following line to a T.V. playing Jack’s how-to negotiate video: “I’m negotiating against you, you magnificent bastard! You!” The dialogue feels overly theatrical and a bit out of character for Liz, who is usually more informal in her griping, and Fey’s delivery reflects this stretching and not quite reaching.
Finally, a few of the musical cues and passages seem to depart stylistically, or are over-developed or over-active (i.e., punctuating every line and moment) to an obtrusive degree. A show so inherently elastic needs to resist the urge toward ungrounded tonal shifts, even in subtler areas such as the score, which has a surprisingly strong effect on how the action plays.
But overall, writing and direction that stay honest to the individual characters and their fundamental desires remain most important to crafting an episode that jells, which this episode does better than most in recent memory.