Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 22, 2009)
In its first season, 30 Rock made a name for itself as a smart, high-quality comedy. It did nothing to alter that impression during its strike-abbreviated second year, so I looked forward to Season Three. I’ll look at all 22 episodes in broadcast order, which is how the shows appear here. The plot synopses come straight from the DVD’s packaging.
Do-Over: “Liz (Tina Fey) tries to keep the TGS staff from ruining her chances at adoption when an evaluator (Megan Mullaly) drops by the job. Jack (Alec Baldwin) is back at 30 Rock to reclaim his position from Devin Banks (Will Arnett), but quickly learns the task won’t be easy when he is given a sizable demotion.”
Boy – has 30 Rock always been this frantic and I just forgot? “Do-Over” seems like it needs a good dose of Ritalin, as the episode tears at us most of the way. Still, while it can seem a little too spazzy at times – and I’m not wild about the adoption subplot – it scores enough laughs to succeed.
Believe in the Stars: “On a flight back from Chicago, Liz spills her soul to Oprah Winfrey. Meanwhile, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) butt heads as they try to determine whose life is harder and Jack’s morality is tested by Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) after an Olympics snafu.”
When I saw that Oprah would guest on this episode, I feared it’d be a lame bit. Happily, “Stars” takes a clever approach that simultaneous deflates the Oprah cult and gets in plenty of funny moments. I don’t know if anything I’ve seen in this series has made me laugh as hard as Liz’s drug-addled reaction to sitting next to Oprah. “Stars” starts slowly but crushes as it goes.
The One with the Cast of Night Court: “Liz and Jenna’s free-spirited friend Claire (Jennifer Aniston) visits New York and falls hard for Jack. Kenneth, distressed over the new page uniforms, turns to Tracy, who cheers him up with a surprise involving the cast of Night Court.”
Wow – a double dose of stunt casting! Like the prior show, I feared that gimmicks would weigh down “Cast”, but instead it manages to become another very funny episode. Aniston plays Claire like a crazy version of Rachel, and while not as good, the Night Court side of things has some laughs. Chalk this up as another satisfying program.
Gavin Volure: “Eccentric businessman Gavin Volure (Steve Martin) becomes enamored with Liz. Meanwhile, Tracy fears his kids may have sinister plans and Kenneth entrusts Jack to invest his savings in Gavin’s business venture.”
First the show about Liz’s desire for a baby and now a guest turn from Steve Martin – is this S3 of 30 Rock or a remake of Baby Mama? Whatever the case, “Volure” provides a good show. It’s not quite as strong as the last two – seriously, I doubt anything will make me laugh as hard as that Oprah bit I mentioned – but it’s fun to see Martin ham it up, and the plot about Tracy’s kids has its moments.
Reunion: “Liz is opposed to going to her high school reunion, but Jack manages to convince her otherwise. Meanwhile, Don Geiss (Rip Torn) wakes up from his coma only to shock Jack with his declaration of who will be GE’s CEO.”
Hey – a show without guest stars! The reunion clearly offers the best aspects of the episode, as Liz comes to terms with her high school reputation and a despondent Jack takes solace as “Larry Braverman”. Add to that a subplot in which Kenneth steals Tracy’s thunder and you have another winner.
Christmas Special: “Liz participates in a charity program to help underprivileged kids celebrate Christmas. Meanwhile, Jack takens his frustration out on the TGS staff when his plans for a dream holiday vacation away from his overbearing mother (Elaine Stritch) are crushed.”
Holiday shows are tricky terrain for any series, and that proves especially true for something that relies so heavily on tartness and irony. Either the show goes down the predictably subversive path or it embraces schmaltz and doesn’t feel true to itself. “Special” tries to go both ways, and it doesn’t work. A few good bits emerge – and I always like Stritch’s take as Jack’s mother – but overall, the program disappoints.
Senor Macho Solo: “Jenna is concerned that Liz’s attraction to a new guy (Peter Dinklage) has to do with her longing to have a child. Jack hits it off with his mother’s nurse, Elisa (Salma Hayek), helps Tracy and Angie (Sherri Shepherd) arrange a “post-nup”, and tries to get Jenna an audition for the title role in a Janis Joplin biopic.”
As with the holiday show, “Solo” takes the series into a moderately emotional place, and it doesn’t quite work – especially since Jack is once again the one going through the various feelings. Liz’s relationship also feels a bit afraid to really embrace the usual hijinks, though Dinklage pulls off his role as the perfect – albeit vertically challenged – guy really well. Despite her enormous boobs, Hayek does less well as Jack’s new love interest; she just doesn’t have great comedic chops. Perhaps she’ll improve as the season progresses, but “Solo” ends up as a mixed bag.
Flu Shot: “Liz fights for the staff’s rights to flu shots from Dr. Spaceman (Chris Parnell). Meanwhile, Elisa is working seven days a week, so Jack must be creative about finding ways to spend time with her.”
Okay, 30 Rock is officially in a slump. I excused the Christmas episode because those usually aren’t very good, but “Shot” makes two non-holiday disappointments in a row. It’s fun to see Dr. Spaceman again, but “Shot” never really takes flight.
Retreat to Move Forward: “Nervous about the corporate retreat, Jack recruits Liz to accompany him for support. Jenna decides to take up method acting to prepare for her Janis Joplin role. Kenneth must convince Tracy that diabetes is affected by his diet.”
Perhaps it’s the absence of Hayek, but S3 rebounds nicely with “Retreat”. Though it runs three and a half stories, it balances them well and hits the spot. Heck, the comedy could’ve bombed and I’d still love it because we get to see Fey rip open her shirt.
Generalissimo: “Liz discovers she has a handsome and single neighbor (John Hamm) after receiving his mail by mistake. Due to Jack’s striking resemblance to a Spanish soap opera villain, Elisa’s grandmother disapproves of their relationship. The new TGS interns invite Tracy out for a night of partying.”
Despite the presence of Hayek and her awkward comedic skills, this one works, largely due to the twist of the “Generalissimo” character. It’s a hoot to see Baldwin camp it up as a Latin version of himself, and that side of things fares well. The show creates a fun parallel between Liz and the soap opera character, so the program scores.
St. Valentine’s Day: “Liz unintentionally insists she and Drew have their first official date on Valentine’s Day. Jack goes to church with girlfriend Elisa and Tracy helps Kenneth win the affection of a new staffer.”
Like Christmas episodes, shows that deal with Valentine’s Day run a strong risk of sappiness. This one occasionally trots down that path, but it maintains a better sense of the series’ normal insouciance than “Christmas Special” did. Nothing here quite excels, but the show satisfies.
Larry King: “Jack considers taking the next step with Elisa while Tracy’s interview on Larry King Live sends New York City into a panic. Liz recruits Kenneth to accompany her to chaotic Queens to retrieve her lost cell phone.”
Unquestionably, Tracy’s stint as financial advisor provides the best aspect of “King”. He’s absolutely the wrong person at the wrong time, and the show takes good advantage of that. At least that side of things balances out the sappiness of the Jack/Elisa relationship.
Goodbye, My Friend: “Liz befriends a pregnant teen in an attempt to adopt her baby. Jenna vies for more attention but Kenneth’s plan to combine her birthday party with one for Tracy derails her efforts. Jack goes out with the guys and bonds with Frank (Judah Friedlander) over daddy issues.”
All season long, it’s bothered me that Friedlander and Scott Adsit get high billing in the opening credits although they barely do anything. Despite a little more face time here, Adsit essentially remains MIA, but at least “Friend” allows Friedlander a bigger role. He takes advantage of it in this fun twist on Frank’s usual scuzzball character. Liz’s Juno trend also amuses, and the Jenna/Tracy side of things amuses as well.
The Fun Cooker: “When Liz can’t scheme her way out of jury duty, chaos ensues on the set of TGS with no one in charge. Tracy and Jenna begin to act irresponsibly, while Jack becomes absorbed in launching a lucrative new product.”
In a nice twist, “Cooker” doesn’t attempt to advance any of the season’s ongoing plots. No Jack/Elisa, no adoption – just good old-fashioned 30 Rock nuttiness. Another glimpse of Liz’s Princess Leia is always welcome, and I love that she takes a crazed arsonist as her inspiration for life. Throw in a hyper Jenna, a mini-microwave and Tracy’s self-absorption and you have a solid show.
The Bubble: “Liz spends more time with her new boyfriend Drew and finds that his handsomeness allows him to bypass many of the usual frustrations of daily life. Jack must find a way to convince Tracy to stay on at TGS after his contract expires and Jenna considers a new hairstyle to attract public attention.”
While funny, “The Bubble” loses some points due to a mix of concerns. First, it essentially steals the Drew plot from an episode of Seinfeld, and also it seems really improbable that it took this long for Liz to figure out what a moron Drew is. Still, the Tracy plot is good, and the show works overall despite these problems.
Apollo, Apollo: “While Jack plans the perfect 50th birthday party for himself, he watches old home videos that inspire him to recreate one of the happiest moments he had as a young boy. Liz’s ex-boyfriend Dennis (Dean Winters) decides to come clean about an addiction, stirring up drama between Liz and Jenna.”
Despite the return of the ever-deplorable Dennus, “Apollo” never quite manages to come together. It includes a mix of decent stories but none of them entertains in the manner I expect from the series. It ends up as an okay episode and that’s about it.
Cutbacks: “Excitement for TGS’s 50th show is quickly replaced by concern about company budget cuts. When Jack is forced to hand out pink slips, Liz does some personal bartering to save her staff.”
After the mediocre “Apollo”, S3 rebounds pretty effectively here. “Cutbacks” doesn’t do anything to dazzle, especially since many of its gags are somewhat predictable, but it still satisfies. I especially like the view of Kenneth in his second job as Jack’s assistant.
Jackie Jormp-Jomp: “Suspended from work, Liz must learn to live without TGS. Meanwhile, when the film studio has second thoughts about releasing Jenna’s Janis Joplin biopic, Jack needs Jenna to create some promotional buzz using her celebrity status.”
Liz’s alternate life with the Women of Leisure is a hoot to see, especially when we hit the big twist; a change-up was inevitable, but the one the show uses comes as an amusing surprise. I’m always happy to see more of Jenna’s movie, and I love the new title. This isn’t one of the season’s best shows, but it’s a good one.
The Ones: “When Jack and Elisa think seriously about their engagement, he seeks advice from Tracy about the reality of married life. Elisa divulges to Liz she is keeping a secret, a prank results in an injury back at TGS, and Jenna loses her cool over an attractive EMT.”
It’s hard to knock an episode in which Fey and Hayek kiss – so I won’t. Plus, it may mark Elisa’s departure from the series, which I regard as a good thing. Add to that a psychotic Jenna and the show works pretty well.
The Natural Order: “Tracy and Liz stop receiving preferential treatment and experience what it means to be each other’s equals. Jack’s mother reveals unpleasant memories about Jack’s father leaving the family. Jenna adopts a pet gibbon and learns the perils of motherhood.”
“Order” feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It boasts some threads with good potential, but none of them hit paydirt. It also indulges in some additional schmaltz between Jack and his mother, and that’s a trend I just don’t enjoy; they’re more interesting when they’re totally at odds. The show still has some good moments, but it’s a disappointment compared to what it could’ve been.
Mamma Mia: “Liz and Tracy convince Jack to begin the search for his real father (Alan Alda) and Tracy discovers an illegitimate son. Meanwhile, Jenna and Liz fight for the spotlight when Jenna gets recognition for one of Liz’s ideas.”
As the season heads to its close, the soap opera factor ratchets up a notch with the search for Jack’s dad. Unfortunately, it’s not a great one. The Mamma Mia! theme doesn’t get exploited very well, and the other threads don’t quite go anywhere either. Like “Order”, it’s not a bad show, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either, though I do like the Donkey Kong reference.
Kidney Now!: “The TGS staff rallies as Jack’s father’s health hangs in the balance. Liz enjoys newfound fame as a relationship expert. When Tracy’s high school invites him to speak at graduation, Kenneth helps him overcome embarrassing memories.”
S3 ends on an erratic but generally positive note. On the negative side, the charity event to benefit Jack’s dad is something that’s better on paper than in reality; the jokes it involves feel stale and flat. However, Liz’s attempts to become a relationship guru are quite amusing, and the side of things related to Tracy also works. The show doesn’t knock one out of the park, but it finishes things in a reasonably satisfying manner.