Though I suspect a lot of people will be declaring—as we get into year-end roundup and critic’s-list season—that this was 30 Rock’s year, really what it has been is Tina Fey’s year. She’s on the cover of Vanity Fair, she was the showbiz star of the election with her Palin impersonation and she’s a pop-cultural obsession of the day. And I say better her than Miley Cyrus.
But not to take away from Fey’s well-deserved moment—it is still worth remembering that there have only been a handful of great 30 Rock episodes in calendar year 2008. Part of this is simple math. There was a strike, first. After a strong first half of its 2007-08 season, 30 Rock’s post-strike episodes were pretty shaky, up until the brilliant “Cooter” season-ender. Then NBC delayed the start of the current season until the end of October.
Well, whatever. 30 Rock started out unjustly overlooked, so fine by me and the universe (on whose behalf I am authorized to speak) if it ends up being successful and more widely recognized because of Tina Fey and Sarah Palin. (Maybe if SNL had cast Will Arnett to do a memorable John Kerry imitation in 2004, we’d still have Arrested Development!)
But if the 30 Rock story is right now mainly the Tina Fey story, then it is only appropriate that last night’s 30 Rock episode was itself mainly the Tina Fey story. And guess what? It was pretty good!
“Reunion” was funny in most of the usual 30 Rock ways. (I’ll list a few favorites and you can take it from there: “And your landlord called and said it’s not your toilet, it’s you”; “Kathy CEO” written on a MagnaDoodle; “Rich 50 is middle class 38.”) Above all, there was the quote that I used as the title of this post, which I will probably find excuses to work into my daily conversation until Mrs. Tuned In warns me to knock it off.
But it also seemed either more autiobiographical than usual or a kind of meta-commentary on the Fey-mania of the past few months. Liz Lemon was a nerdy teen from the burbs in Pennsylvania, more or less like Fey, whose biography and old photos have bubbled up lately. But here her transformation takes a twist, as she finds that, in a way, it wasn’t a transformation at all. She’s lost the orthodontics and the perm, but it turns out that she’s not just an ugly duckling turned “vaguely ethnic swan”; she’s the same sharp-beaked sarcastic bird of prey who actually terrified her classmates.
The great thing about that twist is that it underscores how distinctive and non-cliche a character Liz is. As we’ve seen in various situations at the office, she’s not a shrinking violet who learns to be assertive. Rather, she is—and has been all along—self-doubting and self-confident at the same time. (A combination that’s not rare in life but is rarer in fiction.) This is probably her common bond with Jack, who usually exudes supreme confidence, but—as in this episode, or in the ones with his mother—crashes hard when he crashes into self-loathing.
Unlike the typical woman in a class-reunion story, Liz is not pretending to be impressive and successful to impress her classmates. She actually is impressive and successful—in fact, even as a teen, she was apparently far more intimidating than she knew she was. She is genuinely knows she’s earned the right to fly home on that corporate plane, and when she gets home she will still probably crack open a bag of Sabor de Soledad. If she has room left over from the popcorn.
Oh, also: nice to see Janel Moloney get a cameo, but also nice to see a cameo that doesn’t utterly overwhelm the episode. And a good episode it was. I want to go to there again. See? I can’t stop myself!