Spoilers for the season 6 premiere of 30 Rock below:
One of the best set pieces in the pilot of 30 Rock had Jack Donaghy, meeting Liz Lemon for the first time, give her a withering rundown of her personality, habits and beliefs: “New York, third-wave feminist, college educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that has ‘Healthy Body Image’ on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for… [pause] a week.” The exercise, at this point in their relationship, is an alpha-dog move, a way for Jack to assert his intellect and inform his new employee that she’s not as unique as she might think.
Over the years, Jack and Liz have become friends who respect and even need each other. So when Jack pulls a similar move in the beginning of “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching”—guessing each incident of Liz’s Christmas break with her family—it’s a friendlier gesture. But this time Liz wins in the end: when Jack bets $1000 that she’s wearing a Christmas sweater out of guilt, she rips open her coat to reveal, “They were dickies! Happy 2012!” (In the process, showing off Tina Fey’s post-pregnancy form. Nice work!)
You might think that six years of friendship would mean that Jack is able to size up Liz in even more granular detail, “Dance” suggests that familiarity—with a person, or with a TV show—can mean just the opposite: the point at which you really get to know someone is when they can surprise you most.
Can 30 Rock still surprise the viewer, six seasons in? As with Jack’s attempt at clairvoyance, the answer is yes: but just a little. I did not expect 30 Rock to return much changed from its long hiatus and in most respects it sure didn’t. You knew you were going to get a satire of NBC programming. (America’s Kidz Got Singing! a typically dead-on parody that, also typically, ran out of gas before it ran out of airtime.) You knew that a couple of characters would get a more realistic character treatment (this time Liz, and to a lesser extent Jack) while others would get as full-on cartoony as the writers’ concepts demanded; thus we had the usually-sweet Kenneth rejoicing about his beloved coworkers’ going to “Black Hell” and “Women’s Hell” (a.k.a. “Aroused Dog Heaven”), because he needed to shoulder a religious-nutjob story this week. You knew there would be a slew of tightly-packed jokes, some of them hilarious, and just enough character development to keep the whole thing from spinning off into orbit.
The character development was for Liz, who surprised her coworkers, and I’m guessing the audience by showing that she (1) could be uncomplicatedly happy and (2) apparently has herself a fella on the down-low. I like this direction for Liz; it makes sense that a woman who’s had success in her career and has dated guys who look like Matt Damon and Jon Hamm would be able to move past neurotic self-flagellation and enjoy what objectively looks like a pretty sweet (if demanding) life. Finding joy with the Timeless Torches—people having an unashamedly uncool good time—is classic Liz, as is the idea that she would take life inspiration from the side of a box of Satchel Paige tampons. But I also have hopes for the Mystery Man story, less for the mystery itself than for the idea that 30 Rock might try to shake up its formula and develop a longer-term arc for the lead character.
I’m not counting on anything after one episode; it’s entirely possible that Happy Liz could join Liz’s Future Adopted Baby on the pile of discarded 30 Rock arcs. (It was good to see that the show hasn’t forgotten Avery—who it now has married to Kim Jong-Un—but it would be nice to see it do more with Jack-as-dad than this week’s offhanded “Mommy”-as-”Money” gag.) And “Dance” itself wasn’t a stellar episode, quotable one-liners notwithstanding, but I’m at least happy for this small promise. Six seasons in, do we know everything we need to know about 30 Rock? It’s possible, but I hope not.