Season Premiere: 30 Rock – “Season 4”

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“Season 4”

October 15th, 2009

There has been a lot of talk about a backlash against 30 Rock as of late, with numerous critics taking time out of their schedules to less review the new season and more place it on an axis of television comedy. The question is not so much about whether 30 Rock is funny, but whether it is consistently funny, and whether it is funny in ways that imply long-term development or ways which rely too heavily on quick cutaways and an almost sketch-comedy aesthetic. Whether VanDerWerff or Holmes, Sepinwall or Weinman, everyone seems to agree that 30 Rock is a flawed show capable of occasional genius, and there are certain things that it could do to improve.

In my relatively short time as a TV critic, I’ve spent more of my comedy analyzing time with The Office, a show which features far more nuance than 30 Rock in terms of its characters. On that show, the actions of Michael Scott need to be finely tuned to (in my view) connect with the right level of comedy, or else risk throwing the entire show out of whack. However, with 30 Rock, the show is inherently out of whack which is kind of the point of the whole thing. I don’t shy away from criticizing 30 Rock, nor do I feel that it deserved to steamroll The Office at the Emmys as it did (as the latter show had the better season, in my eyes), but at the same time I don’t feel that criticizing the show is the same as condemning it. 30 Rock, like all shows, isn’t critic-proof (that’s not a thing), but it is a show that manages to make me happy even when it isn’t quite living up to its full potential.

As such, I thought the cheekily titled “Season 4” was largely satisfied with cheeky as opposed to substantive, and that its commitment to that value resulted in an engaging half-hour of television that didn’t reach high enough but nonetheless had me eating out of the palm of its rough-skinned hand. Helped by airing after a less than fully-realized episode of The Office, the start of the fourth season gives almost no indication of what’s to come, but embodied enough of what makes the show work for me to be pretty excited about it anyways. I missed this show, and I’m glad to have it back, flaws and all.

From the moment the episode opens in an asian fusion restaurant named Season 4, the tongue was firmly in cheek with this one, a fact which is both part of the show’s identity and honestly part of its problem. In this one, a lot of the episode was built around a central satire of a network that’s not a veiled analogy to NBC but is actually the show’s version of NBC, which makes the middle America appeal of Jenna country-ized version of Tennis Night in America the perfect analogy to Jay Leno’s arrival at 10pm (which turned into a crossover that I’ll get to a bit later). The episode ultimately did a good job with showing how a single event (cutting costs and changing demographic focus in the wake of an economic crisis) would effect its various secondary characters (Kenneth bringing the pages together against lying, Tracy trying to reconnect with the common folk, and Jenna going country like all the cool women are doing), making the episode more cohesive than some of the show’s more disjointed outings.

However, because everything was effectively tongue-in-cheek, a storyline like Kenneth’s doesn’t entirely work. I liked an excuse to bring back Steve Buscemi, but Kenneth and Jack have been pitted against each other before (their poker showdown) with far more interesting results. Because of how the episode was essentially one large satire, we were simply waiting for the moment when Kenneth’s lack of intelligence would lead to the downfall of his efforts, or when Jack would outsmart him. It had the unfortunate distinction of resulting in the least laughs (Buscemi got most of them, to be honest), and feeling like the one supporting story that got drawn into something larger than it could really sustain. The show had gotten good mileage out of Jack and Kenneth before, but this storyline felt like a misstep that didn’t live up to either character’s potential.

I kind of feel the same way about Liz’s storyline, but it had a lot of elements that I really enjoyed due to either continuity (the return of Josh, who disappeared last season, being handled w/ tongue in cheek references to everyone forgetting he was there) or the fun dynamic of Pete and Liz. The show could have actually shown Liz and Pete at comedy clubs, entering into another level of satire, but it chose to just let us enjoy moments like their fundamental ability to lie, which plays into both characters’ awkward sides and gives us gems like Pete’s penchant for uterus-based excuses. It wasn’t a particularly inventive sort of comedy, and there were times (Pete’s wife suggesting Liz enter the bedroom, for one) where it went too far, and where better comedy (Pete’s pronoun confusion was great) was left behind. Part of me feels the episode suffered by spending too little time with Jack and Liz together, as it’s the show’s best pairing, but seeing Liz operating as Head Writer was nice to see.

And while I agree that 30 Rock was overdominant in certain Emmy categories, I’m really glad that Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski got recognized for their work with Tracy and Jenna. I know these aren’t the deepest characters in the world, and I know the show sometimes really struggles to make Jenna a relevant character. But I really enjoyed both of them in this episode, especially Tracy who got to have that absolutely fantastic man-on-the-street sequences featuring gems like “Let me guess your name…Swimming!” and “Are you a pre-op trans-centaur?” Sure, it’s essentially a short form SNL skit extended into a character moment, but it was enormously well-executed and actually fit into the central theme of the episode (and was an escalation of his earlier discussion with the janitor, also a comic highlight). This is a show that could rely on Tracy screaming for help to escape an elevator, and often does, but I like that both his story and Jenna’s musical number were connected into things.

Ultimately, the episode failed to really bring things full circle in the end, with Jenna and Tracy’s integration into the picketing was clever (as both promise to throw a hissyfit if it’s a hot blonde, and Jenna arrives to picket while Tracy gets drawn in by the bucket drummers’ union) but ultimately meaningless, and the episode was missing a moment that really connected. The musical number was fun and all, but the episode did seem to be missing a storyline beyond the satire. For all of the character beats that the show got out of that one reality, I never felt that any of them were particularly novel, in some ways a greatest hits (and in others a retread, or a side project) as opposed to something legitimately new and interesting. This isn’t a condemnation, as I laughed more at Tracy’s jaunt outside than I did during an entire episode of The Office (which was going for something different, but more on that in the review I’m about to write), but it’s one sign of what the show wants to be.

In some ways, the most interesting element of “Season 4” is its final scene, where Jack turns to the audience (his second direct address of the episode, after the opening “Welcome to Season 4”) and tells us that in the spirit of appealing to Middle America here is Jay Leno. I knew a scene like it was coming, as critics had pointed to a biting attack on Leno appearing in the episode. However, what they couldn’t have predicted is how the spontaneous and same-day taped DVR-proof Leno would respond, as the show co-opted the moment by having Leno thank them for the toss and then have a set of cowgirls perform a routine similar to Jenna’s while a Jay Leno-ized version of Tennis Night in America was played. I didn’t bother sticking around to see what he had to say about it (I will only do so much for this gig when I’m not paid for it), but the move seemed like an attempt to undercut the satire involved. I have to presume that Leno’s writers got the joke, and that NBC helped organize the connection in an effort to boost Leno’s audience, but it’s an example of where Leno’s spontaneity actually did change the impact of something for viewers as opposed to critics, albeit in a way that makes him out to not quite “get” satire (unless the words to that song, barely comprehensible, said something I missed).

Overall, I’m glad to have the show back: it’s a show I love watching, writing about, and more importantly debating with people. Much like with Glee, this is a show that I know has flaws but that I feel works well despite them, and one that I’ll defend not as a perfect piece of entertainment but as a perfect element of my personal television landscape. I thought this one could have done a bit more in places, but this was a funny thirty minutes, and I’ll take it.

Cultural Observations

  • I like the idea that Tracy thinks you can only get sued for sexual harassment when you’re working a job, as well as his impression that Moby is a relatable figure for Brooklyn residents.
  • While the uterus line was the most shocking, and the pronoun use the most awkward, I also enjoyed “I’m picking up my new…tritionist, and his elderly…son.” It just went in so many terrible directions, and Fey sold them all.
  • Some of Kenneth’s lines just weren’t connecting: “Bonus means extra, I learned that from game shows” felt like a sad attempt at a Kenneth line for me, which is unfortunate as McBrayer remains kind of fantastic. Another line that didn’t work was Liz’s diarrhea joke, so the show wasn’t hitting the mark all episode.
  • “I’m here with Nobody, and his wife Sharon Walters Hyphen Nobody” made me laugh way too hard for a hyphen joke.
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