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FTRS Watches: 30 Rock

Because a freshman in a suburban Chicago high school should not actually relate to the plight of a TV writer in New York.

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The promotional shot of the main cast.

To be completely upfront, I haven’t watched this show all the way through in about three years. However, an episode popped on right when I was signing up to do the latest installment of FTRS Watches, and I found myself able to quote the whole thing. I’ve seen the show all the way through at least six times. With that kind of in and out knowledge, I figured what better show would I be qualified to bring to all of you than the one I know inside, outside, left, right, and center. Let’s get to it.

Before we begin: obviously, (mild) spoilers ahead.

The Premise

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is a young-ish urban professional in New York, where she works for NBC as the head writer of a sketch comedy show, more or less a spoof of Fey’s real life past working as a writer at Saturday Night Live. The show-within-a-show stars her best friend, registered crazy person Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and, really, a bunch of nothing behind her. This inspires new executive Jack Donaghey (Alec Baldwin) to decide that getting another star, rambunctious and combustable Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), is the missing link that will make TGS a hit. Antics ensue.

The What:

Much like the first season The Office, it takes a while for 30 Rock to find itself. The first eight episodes of the show are downright painful to watch at times. The timing isn’t there, the character dynamics aren’t fully set, and the like. But, with the episode “Tracy Does Conan,” the show finds what it would be for the rest of its run, particularly Seasons 3-6.

The show’s best ally is its medium - television. The writing staff, and it was a deep one, took the essential ingredients to the zenith of Arrested Development and The Simpsons - the dense, interwoven comedy - and absolutely packed each half hour episode full of it. Of course, more like the former example, the plot arcs span multiple episodes, seasons, or even the whole series, and as much of the comedy comes from the physical and situational humor as does the better remembered wittiness and wordplay.

Like all the shows in the pantheon of bingewatching, it comes down to relatability to characters that ultimately makes it a classic, either of the cult variety or of the more mainstream one. In that regard, 30 Rock is more fringey than anything. Like Arrested Development, it was a show with a hardcore fanbase, and something seen as more of an oddity by those outside that base, unlike more “conventional” shows like Friends, The Office, or Parks and Rec. Ask anyone in this quarantine time if they’re watching an old show that gives them the warm-and-fuzzies and those are much more likely responses. And that’s okay. It’s watchable partially because of how self-contained it is. For those familiar, the goalpost in settling into a random episode is figuring out whoever the romantic interests of the main charcters are and running from there. It’s not the plot that matters, per se, as much as the humor. In the end, 30 Rock wasn’t a show that tried to appeal to everything and everyone. But it is a show that succeeded in staying true to what made it special: believable, heartfelt characters who were also vividly funny, and that’s why they made seven seasons before they went out on their own terms.

Best Episodes in a Sentence (or Two)

Tracy Does Conan (Season 1, Ep. 7) - The show was dead in the water before this episode. The jokes were there, sure, but not to the extent they would be later, and the characters didn’t feel like they knew how to interact, until it all comes together in one frenetic chain of events.

MILF Island (Season 2, Ep. 11) - As someone who grew up in a big Survivor house, I think I was primed for the parody here, but it’s an eminently quotable episode and was one of the best examples of 30 Rock’s use of extended satire.

Succession (Season 2, Ep. 13) - The rollercoaster ride on this one, another fast-paced episode, is really tough to beat. The concept of Liz Lemon going corporate is bracketed by the ridiculousness of the soap opera politics of GE.

Sandwich Day (Season 2, Ep. 14) - “I wolfed my Teamster sub for you” sums up this one, complete with mysterious sandwich rules and ridiculous Liz Lemon relationship drama. I think the deep spiritual connection with a sandwich rings the most true.

Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter (Season 4, Ep. 17) - Between the Will Ferrell cameo and subsequent revelation about the reason TGS even got picked up in the first place and Jack’s dilemma of choosing between two different women, this episode does more work than any other to explain why 30 Rock is what it is (at this point in the show’s run), while charting the course of the next two seasons.

Queen of Jordan (Season 5, Ep. 17) - Both this and the follow up edition of Tracy’s wife’s ridiculous reality shows are great satire, while at the same time a fantastically entertaining premise for a completely different show.

The Tuxedo Begins (Season 6, Ep. 8) - The direct allusions to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy are one thing, exemplified by the diverging paths of Liz and Jack, which, though a traditional show trope, is drawn out to the extreme here, but perhaps 30 Rock’s most universal legacy is another. Steve Buscemi’s minor recurring role is one of the many excellent guests the show features, and his attempt to fit in as a clearly older man at a high school gave the world the lasting gift that is the “how do you do, fellow kids” meme.

Leap Day (Season 6, Ep. 9) - The best episode of the show; 30 Rock was at its finest when it was fast, funny, satirical, leaned into the slightly alternate universe the show took place in, and used its great guests to their fullest, and this episode had all of it in droves. And, plus, who doesn’t love it when shows go to Benihana - “where dinner is the show!

My Whole Life Is Thunder (Season 7, Ep. 8) - I said a lot of these episodes can stand on their own merit, but you can’t have great episodes like this without the deep connections between the characters and investment from the audience. A fitting way to draw the Jack and Colleen story to a close.

A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World / Hogcock! / Last Lunch (Penultimate Episode, Finale) - It went out like it came in - full of life, humor, and heartfelt connection. A good sendoff, and one that was, fortunately, by design.

The Review

In the end, I think a lot of things make this show worth watching. Even the episodes with weak plots are made up by a consistent quality of comedic entertainment. The show is absolutely re-watchable, and probably necessary, in order to get all the humor baked into each episode. The characters aren’t perfect, and that makes them more relatable, even for a ridiculous superstar like Tracy, and a lot of them have great depth shaded in over the years. In the end, I think what kept me coming back was a combination of all of those, plus a great score and good editing, that really meant a high quality product, even on days where the plot was weaker. I’ve never reviewed a show before, so hopefully all of this made sense and was convincing, because I don’t feel like my humble words did it justice. It’s a good show, one that I give to you with a high recommendation: 4.7/5.

To watch, you can find 30 Rock on Hulu.

That’s what I’ve got. Have you seen it? Did I miss anything? Does it actually stink? Let us know in the comments below.