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TV Tonight: 30 Love? Or 30 Like?

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As Jamie Weinman at MacLean’s has noted, there seems to be a little bit of a critical backlash out there against 30 Rock, which returns tonight on NBC. Having seen the first two episodes of the season, I both get the pushback and don’t get it. On the one hand, they show off the show’s brilliance at topical commentary and throwaway jokes, but they also show some of the limitations that hold it back from being a top-tier comedy. (Where I would place, for instance, The Office today.)

On the other hand it’s pretty much the same show you’ve been watching for a couple seasons now, so I don’t see what’s changed, except perhaps critics’ desire to correct for the series’ effusive Emmy love.

Pretty early on in its run, 30 Rock decided that it was going to be a show mainly about the jokes and not character development. It has two central characters, Jack and Liz, who get to have psychology and motivation and ongoing personal struggles. The other characters are sharply defined, but as attitudes more than three-dimensional people: Jenna’s insecure, Tracy’s crazy, Kenneth’s naive. (And these characters will sometimes change when it serves the needs of the script—as tonight, when Kenneth suddenly develops a backbone because the show needs him to lead a strike by the NBC pages.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s limiting. It means that any given 30 Rock is going to be full of really funny moments and one-liners. But it means that episodes will only occasionally be greater than the sum of their jokes: either when they make do a sustained satire on one idea (“Cooter”), or, more rarely, when they really delve into Liz or Jack (“Apollo, Apollo”). Compare 30 Rock to another live-action show with a high joke-per-page ratio, Arrested Development: after a similar number of episodes, you simply don’t know Tracy or Pete the way you did Buster or Tobias.

That means that an average, non-stellar 30 Rock is almost more like a sketch comedy than a sitcom, memorable more for its parts than for its overall narrative. (I remember, say, that the Oprah episode had the hilarious cutaway to Liz as Princess Leia and the great mix-up of Oprah and the tween girl Liz sat next to on the plane–but I’d have to really think to remember what the episode was about.)

Again, absolutely nothing wrong with that, and 30 Rock is almost unbeatable as commentary on the news (in tonight’s episode, a running storyline about the difference between New York and “real America”; Jack notes that NBC owner General Electric is trying to appeal to Middle America by naming its new mammogram machine the “Get ‘Er Done 2000”). It’s also indispensible as a satire of TV, especially NBC: tonight’s 30 Rock ends with a searingly bite-the-hand crack about Jay Leno. (Tina Fey and Jon Stewart are the two best TV critics working on TV.)  But to repeat a common refrain of mine, the comedy with the most jokes is not automatically the best comedy: an episode of The Office (or, yes, Parks and Recreation) is for my money more memorable even when it’s less funny.

I’m starting to sound backlash-y myself here, so I’ll wrap up. The fact is, I laughed a lot at the two episodes of 30 Rock I saw, and I’m betting you will too. The rest depends on whether the jokes to add up to something more for you, or if you even want them to.