Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 27, 2012)
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 series’ website
Season 4 : “Jack (Alec Baldwin) informs Liz (Tina Fey) that it's time for TGS to start appealing to middle America, and wants her to search for a new cast member.”
The episode starts with an obnoxiously quirky note; Jack welcomes us to Season 4, which we’re then told is the name of a restaurant. It gets a little better from there but remains a bit over the top and under funny. The thread in which Tracy tries to reidentify with the common folk works, but the rest seems rather mediocre.
Into the Crevasse: “Liz's book finally hits the stores, but she faces the wrath of Tracy (Tracy Morgan) when he finds out just how much he influenced what Liz wrote.”
Season Four rebounds after a lackluster start with a much more consistent “Crevasse”. It manages to balance its subplots well and delivers clever moments punctuated by a bizarre porn version of Liz’s life. All of these allow it to become a good episode.
Stone Mountain: “Liz and Jack travel south to find their next great TGS talent.”
“Mountain” lacks great creativity – the trip south reminds me a bit of a Simpsons episode in which Homer discovers a country singer – and the show’s cameos are a little annoying. Still, the program’s usually pretty good, as it’s even able to make a ventriloquist amusing. Nothing classic emerges, but it’s mostly solid.
Audition Day: “It's audition day at TGS and the cast and crew each have want their favorites chosen.”
“Season 4” flops because it spreads itself too thin; I think the series works better with a tighter focus, and that aids “Audition Day”. Though we get some minor diversions, much of the episode concentrates on the search for the new actor, and that benefits it. “Day” delivers good comedy as it digs into the nuttiness behind the scenes.
The Problem Solvers: “While the TGS crew await the arrival of their new cast member, Liz gets an offer of a lifetime.”
After the very good “Day”, “Solvers” falls back a bit, but not to a substantial degree. I must admit the constant parade of cameos gets a little wearying, but I like the intro of the new actors and the use of Jenna and Tracy as “Problem Solvers”. This ends up as a good but not great episode.
Sun Tea: “Liz stops at nothing to purchase her dream apartment, even if that means taking the advice of Jack, Tracy, and Jenna (Jane Krakowski).”
While “Tea” balances a number of plots, it works okay because it lacks the frenetic manic nature of “Season 4”. That doesn’t mean it soars, as some aspects – such as a gratuitous cameo from a noted environmentalist – flop. Still, it has more good than bad.
Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001: “Production begins on Liz's new talk show, Dealbreakers, and she realizes what it's like to walk in Jenna's shoes.”
“Dealbreakers” delivers an erratic show. The aspects related to Liz’s show work, but the subplot in which Frank takes over for her seems a little easy and cutesy; Judah Friedlander’s attempts to emulate Fey flop. Tracy’s desire to become a quadruple threat also falters. As always, we get a reasonable amount of amusement, but this isn’t one of the better episodes.
Secret Santa: “Jack takes a trip down memory lane when his high school crush resurfaces in his life.”
Christmas episodes tend to be hit or miss, and that’s true for this one. I do like the guest appearance from Julianne Moore as Jack’s old crush, but the rest of it falls into the “up and down” category.
Klaus and Greta: “Jenna enters in a fake relationship with James Franco while Jack tries to gain access to a drunken voicemail he left Nancy (Julianne Moore).”
As I mentioned back with “Season 4”, multi-plot episodes can be too frenetic, like they try to balance a lack of real narrative with lots of flash. Though “Klaus” balances four different tales, it does so surprisingly well. Franco’s cameo is a little gratuitous but still fun, and Kenneth’s inability to work a computer becomes awfully funny. These and other factors add up to a top-notch program.
Black Light Attack!: “Danny (Cheyenne Jackson) reveals to Jack he's having secret make-out sessions with a TGS writer; Jenna auditions for Gossip Girl.”
While not quite up to the last episode’s standards, “Attack” has its moments. Though predictable, the Jenna subplot is probably the most amusing, and Fey’s willingness to make herself look awful remains delightful.
Winter Madness: “To boost morale at TGS, Liz and Jack take the gang up north for a work field trip.”
“Madness” keeps things up with a good mix of narrative via Jack’s relationship and goofy comedy. I like the fictional executive who Liz blames all the staff’s woes on as well as Tracy’s crusade against racist patriots. The show works on a consistent basis.
Verna: “Jenna's estranged mother (Jan Hooks) comes into town and Jenna turns to Jack for advice on how to deal with her.”
I don’t know if Hooks is aging terribly or if she was intentionally made to look bad for the character, but yikes! Whatever the case, it’s nice to see her; she’d not done any acting since 2004’s Jiminy Glick in La La Wood and she adds a trashy glory to her character. The subplot about Liz and Frank’s competition also amuses, especially when we see her surveillance tape.
Anna Howard Shaw Day: “Liz schedules her root canal on Valentine's Day, but has a hard time finding somebody to drive her home.”
That theme’s a good one, especially when Liz trips out on anesthesia. A bigger plot twist occurs when Jack romances a new potential love interest – one more his business-oriented speed. The Jack story may turn soap opera-ish eventually, but here it works, primarily because Avery (Elizabeth Banks) seems like such an apt match. Toss in Jenna’s stalker rejection and this becomes a fine show.
Future Husband: “Liz sets out to find the identity of a mystery number in her phone labeled ‘Future Husband’”.
After a good run, “Husband” fizzles a little. Oh, it’s not a bad episode, and I suspect some of its story threads will pay off later. It’s more plot-oriented than most, though, and that’s a bit of a negative; that side of things means less of the usual silliness.
Don Geiss, America and Hope: “Jack struggles to find his new place in the business after hearing of the Kabletown buy out and Liz continues to wonder if Wesley (Michael Sheen) is the ‘one’”.
“Hope” loses some points because Jack’s big innovation isn’t new: I’ve seen “Porn for Women” calendars, and the show doesn’t do anything unique with the idea. The Liz subplot works pretty well, though, partially due to a nice turn from Sheen.
Floyd: “Revenge is in the air when Liz discovers an engaged Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) is back in town to compete for a dream wedding on The Today Show; meanwhile Danny and Jack plan their own revenge against the writers.”
Bringing back Floyd offers a decent twist, but the show doesn’t exploit it in a particularly compelling manner. The revenge subplot fares somewhat better, though, and the way Kenneth keeps Tracy and Jenna occupied amuses.
Lee Marvin Vs. Derek Jeter: “Jack is torn between Nancy and Avery (Elizabeth Banks) while Jenna offers to be Liz's wingman.”
As someone who spent a lot of time on the dating scene, I know what it’s like to meet multiple appealing prospects and have to choose. Granted, they weren’t as hot as Banks or Moore, but I still relate to Jack’s dilemma, and that note of truth gives the show a bit of added zest. I also like the affirmative action subplot and the program delivers a good 20 minutes.
Khonani: “Determined to show her staff she knows how to cut loose, Liz offers to throw a bridal shower for Cerie (Katrina Bowden).”
The thread about Jack’s decision continues to amuse, especially when it makes an analogy to the big Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno flap. Liz’s party is less compelling, but it still has its moments.
Argus: “Liz steps in when Tracy and Dotcom (Kevin Brown) argue over who will be Grizz's (Grizz Chapman) best man.”
The title character is a peacock bequeathed to Jack from Don Geiss; yeah, that concept is as dopey as it sounds. The Argus thread flops, but the rest of the show has its moments, especially when we meet Jenna’s unusual new boyfriend.
The Moms: “Liz sets out to reunite her mother (Anita Gilette) with her one true love, Buzz Aldrin.”
That synopsis makes the episode sound “high concept”, and elements of it are, but overall, it works pretty well. It’s always fun to have Jan Hooks and Elaine Stritch back on the show, and I like a couple of the other threads – including a great choice for Lutz’s mom.
Emmanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land: “Wedding fever hits TGS!”
The best elements here come from a subplot not mentioned in the synposis: Tracy’s suppressed childhood memories. The string of awful experiences he eventually recalls amuse in a perverse way and add the funniest moments. The rest of the show works too, though it can be a little in the soap opera vein as it leads toward the season finale.
I Do Do: “Liz finally meets her soul mate, just as Jack is forced to finally decide between Avery and Nancy.”
“Do” ends the season on a decent – though somewhat melodramatic – note. It ties up some plot threads and opens others, all with a reasonable dollop of comedy. Don’t expect a great finale, but it’s fairly enjoyable.