Watching a very good episode of 30 Rock is like rushing up and down a joke rollercoaster with a jet engine strapped to the back of the car. “Hey Baby, What’s Wrong?” was an hour long and was not a very good episode of 30 Rock, and it was like riding that same rollercoaster, except that a giant monster had grabbed it at both ends and pulled, smoothing it into gentle slopes and sleepy curves, and also, you might have eaten a bad corn dog before you got on. I can’t blame all the problems of the episode on length: the subplots were not that great to begin with, and something felt a little off and curdled about the tone generally. But going to an hour didn’t help. I kept getting that padding-it-out feeling, as if the writers were students trying to meet a ten-page term paper requirement by fiddling with the margins and the font size.
I’ve said this before when reviewing 30 Rocks both good and bad, but I can anticipate the response: Yeah, but what about this joke? And this one! (I’ll start with the “Fievel Goes West” line.) But there’s a difference between the parts and the whole, between a strong episode of comedy and the length of the list of jokes you can generate from it. In a good 30 Rock, the zany storylines and non sequiturs still add up to meaningful stories about the characters; at best, they wave together several stories into a larger theme. Here, there mostly weren’t even subplots as much as running jokes—Ikea kills relationships, Luntz tries to get laid, Jack discovers an attraction to Avery’s mom, Kristen Schaal’s page is alienated by almost everyone at TGS—that ran, and ran, and ran.
Is there a larger problem with season six? Yesterday at NPR’s Monkey See blog, Linda Holmes made the strong case that Liz Lemon has been increasingly infantilized as a character this season: “Over the course of six seasons, Jack has been fully transformed into a condescending, all-knowing daddy, and Liz has been fully transformed into a needy little girl who is eternally terrified of displeasing him.” I don’t completely agree; I think episodes this season have shown Liz ultimately trusting her judgment (especially with Criss, 30 Rock’s store-brand Andy Dwyer) over Jack’s. I like that Liz doesn’t need to be a paragon any more than anyone else on the show; she can be as nerdy, neurotic and damaged as anyone in the office.
But something does seem to be missing, and while I wouldn’t say Liz is becoming a little girl, I would say that, like other characters on the show, she doesn’t feel like a complete person as much as a sequence of patterns. And to be fair, this is probably what 30 Rock wants to be: a sitcom that generally resets to the default position year after year, no one really changing much, so that it can focus on its media parody and insane stream of jokes.
That can still work: it can work really, really well when the show is on. But it makes the story really joke-dependent, and in an episode like “Hey Baby,” where the jokes just can’t sustain for very long, the weaknesses—say, that pretty much every story about Jenna ever will be about her insecurities—become really exaggerated.
Maybe I’m being too hard on it. But isn’t obsessing on the flaws of the ones we love what Valentine’s Day—not to mention League of Women Voters’ Day—is all about?