Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 13, 2012)
Today we take a look at 30 Rock’s Season Five. I’ll examine all 23 episodes in broadcast order, which is how the shows appear here. The plot synopses come straight from TV.com – thanks to them.
The Fabian Strategy: “Jack decides to help Liz hang onto Carol and clashes with Avery over redecorating his apartment. Meanwhile, Tracy finds it tough to cope without Kenneth, and Jenna becomes a TGS producer.”
While I could live without some of the show’s self-referential moments – like nods toward 30 Rock’s tenuous ability to get renewed every year – “Strategy” launches S5 pretty well. It takes four separate threads and balances them nicely, though I must admit I kind of wish they’d kill off the Carol story sooner than later; since it’s clear Matt Damon won’t be a regular, I’d rather the series get rid of him and move on.
When It Rains, It Pours: “Liz puts her newfound self-confidence to use by assisting Pete with the issues he's been having with an NBC video editor. Jack feels the best way to teach he and Avery's impending child whose life he fears he'll miss most ofhow to live is to make DVDs of life lessons. Tracy wants to be there for the birth of his next child, and Kenneth keeps sneaking into 30 Rock to perform his old page duties.”
Unlike the first episode, “Pours” doesn’t do a ton to advance the series’ character narratives. That’s a good thing, though, as the various storylines offer rapid-fire comedy. We get some delightful guest turns from Paul Giamatti and some NBC News staff to help make this a strong program.
Let’s Stay Together: “Jack appears before Congress looking to win approval for the merger with Kabletown. Liz pushes back against the writers' mockery of her. Jenna helps Kenneth with his application to rejoin the NBC Page Program.”
While most of its guest stars aren’t as entertaining as the prior show’s, “Together” still sparkles. Yeah, making bad racism gags isn’t brain surgery, but the jokes are still funny, and an end-credit capper with a cameo from the star of a 1970s sitcom finishes matters on a positive note.
Live Show: “As the show is set to air its weekly broadcast, Liz is agitated when it seems her 40th birthday has been forgotten by her TGS co-workers. Tracy decides that breaking character is so hilarious that he'll do it on purpose all show. Jack regrets his vow to go sober during Avery's pregnancy.”
This episode’s title has nothing to do with its story – it’s a literal description of the program’s production, as it ran live ala SNL. That’s a gimmick that doesn’t work here. After so many laugh-track-free episodes, it’s disconcerting to hear an audience hoot and chortle, and the actors tend to ham it up more than usual. Some mirth still emerges, but the gimmick overwhelms the program and makes it a relative clunker.
Reaganing: “Jack hopes his day of perfect success will allow him to help out Liz with Carol. Jenna and Kenneth get Kelsey Grammer to help them run a con with Carvel's celebrity ‘Black Card’ program. Tracy shoots an ad for the Boys and Girls Club.”
Kenneth/Jenna plots aren’t usually highlights, but they’re especially good here. I like their grift scheme, and Grammer’s guest spot helps sell it. The Liz/Jack and Tracy areas aren’t quite as much fun, but they’re still enjoyable enough to help make this program a rebound after the lackluster “Live Show”.
Gentleman’s Intermission: “Avery wants Jack to be less involved in Liz's life, leaving Liz without Jack's help when her father visits and Jack searching for someone else to mentor. When Tracy sees his pre-made video obituary, he gets Kenneth to help him make some changes to his life. Meanwhile, Jenna's distraught to discover no one's bothered to make an obituary for her and takes matters into her own hands.”
With “Intermission”, we find three good storylines, but none of them become great. The confluence of the Jenna/Tracy one probably works best, though that might be simply because I like the cat who dials 911. All of this adds up to an enjoyable episode but not a stellar one.
Brooklyn Without Limits : “Liz finds a pair of jeans that make her look amazing. Jack throws his weight behind a loopy independent congressional candidate running against Regina Bookman. Jenna helps Tracy organize a gathering to secure a Golden Globe nomination.”
30 Rock gets more political than usual here, with reasonably good results. The Tea Party is an easy target, but John Slattery’s delightful turn as the nutbag candidate makes the material more palatable. Throw in a few amusing glimpses of Tracy’s “serious” movie and this is a good show.
College: “Jack tries to find flaws in GE's latest microwaves. Liz joins a crew lottery, even though she's been warned against it. The writers learn Jack is the voice of an online dictionary.”
Is it sad that I got the “TK-421” reference? Yeah, probably. Despite the nerd-related depression that comes from the episode, it has more than a few strong moments. Like the Tea Party aspects of the prior program, the pranking use of Jack’s online voice is a cheap gag but it’s a funny one, and the show works in clever ways to hearken back to its characters college days.
Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish: “Liz starts talking to Kenneth about Carol after Jack suggests she see a therapist. Tracy wants Jack to invest in his son's Times Square theme restaurant. Jenna and Paul celebrate a half-year together.”
All the attempts to work on relationships and counseling get a little too much at times. I do like the bits with Tracy’s “son” Donald, though; he adds delightful absurdity to the episode. It’s still decent otherwise, but not great.
Christmas Attack Zone: “At the urging of Liz and Avery, Jack reveals some secrets to his mother over her Christmas visit. Liz tries to get Jenna and Paul back together. Tracy hopes to improve his chances of winning a Golden Globe for a serious film by preventing a comedy of his from being released.”
I’ve always loved Elaine Stritch’s take on Jack’s mother Colleen, and she continues to be a bitter delight here. Alan Alda’s brings terrific wit to his role as Jack’s hippie-dippie “real father”, and the Eddie Murphy-influenced bit in which Tracy tries to “go serious” offers fun, too. Still, the Jack theme fares the best and helps make this a strong episode.
Mrs. Donaghy: “A mix-up at Jack's wedding to Avery leaves him actually married to Liz. Budget cuts at TGS force Jenna and Danny to share a dressing room. Angie ponders a new career due to some health news that Tracy receives.”
While the Liz-Jack marriage smacks of “high concept”, the manner in which they square off does work pretty well; Liz is unprepared to deal with negotiations so we get good comedy. Other relationship-related topics seem less satisfying, though; they’re not bad, but they’re a bit lackluster.
Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning: “Jack stages pre-made telethons for disaster relief. Angie's reality show camera crew follows Tracy around the TGS studios, and Liz hopes to use the camera's presence to force him into working harder. Lutz fibs to make himself indispensable.”
For once, some of the secondary characters come to the fore here, as the episode’s best elements look at the writing crew’s attempts to deal with potential disaster. Other elements do nicely as well, especially when Tracy and Liz bicker ala "Uptown Girl”; it’s never a great program, but it’s a good one.
Qué Sorpresa!: “Jack is mortified to discover Kabletown's corporate culture is far more employee-friendly than he's used to. Liz fakes pregnancy to help Avery land a big promotion. A gift from their new bosses puts Jenna and Tracy at odds.”
Probably the most fun here comes from Ken Howard’s chipper turn as Jack’s perky new boss Hank; he’s such a low-brow goof that he’s a delight. We also get Tina Fey shirtless; she tries not to be sexy, but it doesn’t work. Add to that a bizarre Tracy/Jennna battle over a sweatshirt and this one’s a winner.
Double Edged Sword: “Avery's going into labor during a getaway with Jack leaves them in peril of their child being Canadian. Meanwhile, trouble brews when Liz learns just how easily Carol manipulates the passengers during a takeoff delay. Tracy realizes achieving EGOT status comes with a lot of responsibility.”
While most episodes have some strong elements and others that are noticeably weaker, “Sword” provides one of the season’s more balanced shows. If forced to pick a strongest thread, it’d be Liz on the plane, but as the friend of a decades-long airline employee, I must admit I’m a sucker for humor in that vein. Still, all of the bits succeed in this strong program.
It’s Never Too Late For Now: “With the TGS staff afraid Liz will become a spinster, Jenna tries to find love for her. Jack's lack of sleep puts him at a disadvantage when negotiating. Pete and Frank form a band.”
An episode that gives a subplot to Pete is off to a bad start; he’s easily my least favorite character among the show’s regulars. While I could live without his moments, the rest of the episode works pretty well, especially when we see Liz’s complex battle related to spinsterhood.
TGS Hates Women: “Liz hires a woman to the TGS writing staff when the show's accused of being anti-woman. Jack starts a quest to become CEO of Kabletown, even though it's always been family-owned.”
While it sounds fun in theory, “Women” just tries a little too hard to be edgy. Cristin Milioti is fun as the new hire, but the rest of the episode's a bit flat. It’s not bad – it’s just not high-level 30 Rock.
Queen of Jordan: “Presented as an episode of Angie's Queen of Jordan reality show, Jack needs Liz to coerce Angie into getting Tracy to come back from Africa. Meanwhile, Jenna schemes for the camera's attention, Frank gets a visit from teacher who seduced him, and Jack has the camera continually catch him saying things that make him seem gay.”
I wasn’t wild about “Live Show”, but “Jordan” takes a gimmicky concept and soars. It still manages to forward plot elements, but it uses the reality show framework for a clever alternative to the usual 30 Rock MO. It’s one of the year’s best.
Plan B: “When it seems TGS will be cancelled due to Tracy's absence, everyone scrambles to find new employment, but Kenneth is certain he can save the show. Jack looks to Devin to help revive TWINKS, a flagging gay cable network.”
Guest actors help elevate “Plan B”. I still love Ken Howard’s absurdly cheerful Hank Hooper, and Aaron Sorkin comes in with an inspired cameo. The return of Will Arnett’s Devon Banks also adds charm to this solid program.
I Heart Connecticut: “Liz and Kenneth scramble to find Tracy before TGS is cancelled. Jack makes sure Jenna's latest project is a success. Frank proposes an arm wrestling competition contest over who gets to pick lunch, which Pete excels at.”
Episodes with a strong Pete element usually sag, and that’s the case here; the arm-wrestling component almost becomes funny, but Adsit’s performance drags it down. The search for Tracy amuses, though, as does Jenna’s awful horror flick; those components redeem the show reasonably well.
100, Part 1: “With TGS facing imminent cancellation, Jack asks Hank Hooper to allow them to do their 100th episode as a final chance to prove they deserve a place on the air. Meanwhile, a gas leak threatens the production, Jack questions if he's been all he could be, Tracy tries to lose his newfound public respect, and Jenna wonders if motherhood is for her.”
Whenever we get a “Part 1”, I don’t comment until I get to “Part 2”. That’s not gonna change now!
100, Part 2: “Needing a great episode to save the show, Liz deals with getting Tracy his confidence back and Dennis Duffy's return to her life. Meanwhile, Jack continues wondering if his life is on course, and Jenna relishes the prospect of the career boost motherhood could provide.”
Big events like a 100th episode tend to try too hard, and that happens here. Some good moments emerge, but the show seems a little too self-consciously goofy. It’s not a bad program, but it’s ordinary.
Everything Sunny All the Time Always: “Liz runs into problems when trying to fix her dream apartment. Meanwhile, Jack deals with Avery being taken hostage, and Tracy is agitated to discover that Grizz, Dotcom, and Kenneth share an inside joke.”
The inside joke bit works well in a goofy way, but the rest of the show tends to fall flat. Sending Avery to North Korea goes nowhere – a cameo from Condoleezza Rice lacks zing – and even Liz’s dream home theme fizzles. It’s a lackluster episode.
Respawn: “With TGS done for the season, Liz relaxes in the Hamptonsuntil Tracy moves in next door. Jack turns Kenneth into a surrogate for the absent Avery. Jenna's spokesmanship of the Wool Council and their desire for complete normalcy creates friction with Paul over his desire for them to be able to freely be their odd selves. The writing staff plays an endless game of Halo.”
Season Five ends with a moderate dud. Since “Plan B”, the year’s been average, and that doesn’t change here. As always, we get a reasonable number of laughs, and I like the Wool Council moments, but overall, this is a fairly mediocre episode.