Tina Fey’s critically-acclaimed (though woefully underwatched) sitcom 30 Rock hits some incredible highs in its fifth season. Picking up some threads from the fourth season’s plot lines, this season has Fey’s alter ego Liz Lemon navigate through the fast-changing world of television, while trying to maintain some kind of resemblance of sanity in her professional and personal lives. Fictional NBC honcho, Jack Donaghy (Emmy winner Alec Baldwin) is settling into married life with his wife Avery (Elizabeth Banks) and looking forward to impending fatherhood. Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the star of Liz’s sketch show TGS, is going through some personal upheaval, due mainly to the critical success of his indie drama; Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) is still trying to muscle her costar out, while moving forward in her romance with a Jenna Maroney drag queen Paul.
What makes the show work is that one can just drop in on any season and not feel lost. The show’s plot arcs are pretty flimsy and are only there to prop up the surreal humor that Fey and her writers create for the characters. That’s not to say that the show is shallow – instead the source of enjoyment from the show lies mainly in the gags – whether they come from pop culture critique or at the expense of the characters’ various idiosyncrasies and neuroses.
In looking at her surroundings, Fey (with her team of writers) has created some of the most enjoyable moments of television. The eye for detail is laser-sharp and merciless. For example, Fey takes on the concern many in the television industry share regarding the growing lack of scripted television and what that means for the future of writing. It’s a very serious subject that she tackles with her snarky humor (while lamenting the increasing lack of respect for writers, she stumbles across a poster for Transformers 5, credited as written by no one). The shift in TV from written programs to reality TV raise some real concerns for the characters in 30 Rock and Liz Lemon definitely suffers from angst at seeing her livelihood and passion eroding.
In a sharp jab at the networks that embrace reality television, the writers created a subplot with Tracy’s spirited wife, Angie (Sherry Shepherd), who launches her own reality show: Queen of Jordan. In a withering slap at Bravo, the fictional show takes on the tropes of The Real Housewives franchise, with Angie’s caustic attitude ramped up. She’s also surrounded by an entourage of reality TV clichés: a flaming gay hairdresser, a cougary woman with a sordid past, a troubled nephew and a woman cast to be the catalyst for hair-pulling and name-calling. One episode is devoted to Queen of Jordan, and Liz, Jack and the others at TGS are relegated to guest stars in Angie’s drama.
When she’s not fretting about her career, Liz is sweating over her love life, and her relationship with hunky pilot, Carol Burnett (Matt Damon). The couple go through some major drama – though any true emotion and sting is alleviated by the cartoonish antics of the characters and the off-the-wall sight gags that are thrown in the scenes.
For some this aversion to sincere emotion is a cop out; to others, it’s simply the tone of the show. The truth is somewhere in between: some of the best moments of the previous seasons were when the writers stopped to rest for a second and allow for the actors to act. A great example is watching the range of emotions on Baldwin’s face as he listens to a long string of messages from Liz, each leading toward an assumed conclusion her success in adopting a baby, which doesn’t happen; or in an earlier season when Liz cruelly tells devoted and naive NBC page, Kenneth (Jack MacBrayer) that they are not really best friend as she led him to believe. These nuggets of sincerity are few and between.
One thing is clear about this show: there are no cued musical strings as one character teaches another an important lesson. When Jack schools Liz on why she messed or when Liz referees the rivalry between Tracy and Jenna, the lessons are helpful, but tipped with sarcasm. This show will never be confused with Full House (unless Fey and company decide to make fun of it).
Along with the great writing and fun acting, another cool aspect of the show is the guest cast. Mad Men‘s John Hamm returns in an awesome cameo on the live show; Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays flashback Liz on the live show; Queen Latifah has a great time doing a take on a blustery congresswoman in the spirit of Al Sharpton; Alan Alda and the tremendous Elaine Stritch return as Jack’s warring parents; comedienne Margaret Cho does an absurd but hilarious Kim Jong Il; Damon, arguably the biggest name, is game as the over-emotional Carol; and Banks all her scenes as the Ann Coulter-inspired Avery.
It’s a credit to 30 Rock that even though it’s on its 6th year, the quality hasn’t dipped. It’s past its buzz-worthiness and has no settled as a solid entry in NBC’s block of television sitcoms. It doesn’t approach the blockbuster ratings of Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory, but it has a niche audience that’s carried it along for over half a decade.