Season Premiere: 30 Rock – “Do-Over”


October 30th, 2008

Thanks to the kindness of Ashley, a newfound Twitterquaintance, I was able to snatch the 30 Rock premiere for free on iTunes on Sunday through TV Guide’s promotion. So, let it be known that I am writing this review while the premiere has had time to sit…or, more accurately, that I am writing this review having watched the episode four times.

“Do-Over” is not the best episode of 30 Rock, nor is it necessarily an entry into the show’s catalogue of fantastic ones. Rather, it is familiarity that makes this episode so memorable: it offers plenty of showcase opportunities for Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin (albeit leaning towards the former), it has a sharp storyline that offers every character a small moment, and it uses its guest star (Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally) wisely, unlike last season’s unfortunately flat appearance by Jerry Seinfeld.

While NBC is hoping that this is going to be a do-over for 30 Rock, a show that never quite captured the kind of audience the network is looking for, that’s all based on ratings: creatively speaking, the show barely needed a fresh coat of paint to return as the funniest comedy on television.

At the heart of this season, at least in the first episode, is the relationship between Liz and Jack, one that we saw grow throughout last season. While there will always be some type of conflict between these two characters, at the same time they work well as a partnership: while I won’t go so far as to say that they work better as friends than enemies (after all, “Rosemary’s Baby” was the best episode of last season and was all about Jack forcing Liz to conform to broadcast standards), this relationship is a heartwarming center to the series that their quick-witter banter keeps fresh. Liz’s excitement at seeing Jack return to New York, and all of their subsequent interactions as Jack works his way back up the corporate ladder and Liz handles an awful adoption agent visit, all lead up to that final scene when Liz looks into Jack’s office, seems him sitting at the desk, and just stares for a second with contentment.

This is not to say that saccharine and heartwarming are overwhelming the comedy: whether it’s Liz’s concern that her Colin Firth movies would be considered erotica (Jack: “That man sure can wear a sweater”), or their simultaneously realization that having sex with Cathy Geiss/tricking an amnesiac adoption agent doesn’t make them the worst people ever (“Graduate Students, Graduate Students are the worst,” which, thanks Tina Fey! I really appreciate that), the two have gone from comedy archetypes (hard-working employee and one-minded boss) into a comedy duo. When Jack asks if Liz has ever been sexually harassed, he quickly follows with “Of course not,” but she says exactly the same thing: for at least the current moment, each fighting for their goals, they’re on the same page and it resulted in some of the episode’s best lines.

Everyone else, for the most part, was right in line with what we’d expect of them. Will Arnett is great in the role of Devin, who continues to fall off the rails as head of GE (My favourite line in the entire episode was probably “It’s just G. I sold the E to Samsung – they’re Samesung now!”), and the return and expansion of the Cathy Geiss character is the kind of subtle absurdity that the show handles so well with its rapid-fire style. The rest of the supporting cast gets their moments as well: Kenneth gets excited over finding out what imperative means, Frank changes from his horny baseball hat to his horny bowler hat, Pete has a blow-up doll in his office, Cirie still thinks Liz is divorced with multiple children, Jenna enjoys how her stalker Yolanda gives her headless dolls for not doing anything at all, and Tracy is leasing the batmobile. The only person who really doesn’t get any sort of attention is the strangely absent Twofer: not quite sure where he is.

It’s clear that Jenna and Tracy have a tight legal battle ahead of them, which sounds just about as potential-filled as you can imagine. After Jenna’s fat storyline was so genius last season, this feels like a bit of step down in many ways, but there’s still some potential and I really enjoyed Tracy’s “You can’t sue me – I’m already being sued! DOUBLE INDEMNITY!” line; as long as he continues to ramble incoherent legalese, I’m pretty sure that I’m more than on board. Tracy’s character is the one who will always be a little bit out there, but the episode used this to good effect (also enjoy Dot Com differentiating between his obnoxiousness and his speech impediment).

As for guest star Megan Mullally, this is the right kind of guest for the show: like Liz’s run-in with the co-op board last year, these situations are often best when Liz is totally paranoid, over-prepared, and where everything goes wrong. While things don’t quite go as poorly as they did with the co-op board (Which is still one of my favourite storylines from last year for Liz’s late night, drunken phone calls), there’s still this battle of Liz against a strict, shrewd individual who seems to be out to get here. Liz’s desire for a child feels very real (she just wants a baby so it can grow up to resent her, after all), and staging it within this hijinx-filled scenario is the right way to engage comedy with character. Mullally gets to play both her cold-hearted side and her wacky side (once she gets nunchuck’d in the face, anyways), and feels right at home within the universe.

From the reviews from critics lucky enough to see both of the opening episodes (See: Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan), next week’s Oprah-infused episode follows the same lines. Honestly, it’s just good to have the show back: all the stories tomorrow will be about whether or not all of the Sarah Palin and SNL hype and Emmys will make a difference in the ratings, but considering NBC’s lack of creatively strong programming right now I have a feeling that high quality will be enough to keep 30 Rock alive.

Cultural Observations

  • For those who are curious, double indemnity actually has to do with life insurance policies, as opposed to a lawsuit-version of double jeopardy, or whatever Tracy through it was. From Mo Ryan’s review, it sounds like Tracy gets an even better line next episode.
  • Tina Fey was bloody fantastic in this episode, and I think my favourite reading was “Maybe it’s my annual sex guest” when her phone rang: her quick-wittedness, so in character for a TV writer and for Fey herself, always pops up at the wrong times, and it works wondrously in awkward situations.

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