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30 Rock / Office Watch: Welcome Back!

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Hardin serves up the crazy. / NBC Photo: Chris Haston

Neither 30 Rock nor The Office is 100% back on its game after the strike yet, but last night’s episodes did a lot to show how different these partnered-up comedies are.

To overgeneralize a little, 30 Rock is mainly about jokes and The Office is mainly about characters. Neither approach is inherently better than the other. But last night I found myself laughing louder at 30 Rock, while enjoying The Office more overall.

Let’s start with 30 Rock. I don’t think it hung together well overall: the reality-show parallel was too pat, and Liz’s immediate decision to sell out her staff seemed out of character. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny. As I’ve said before, the best way to review an episode of this show is just to list the LOLs, and I’ve got a long one—the Cathy cartoon, Jack’s Class A Moron certificate, the MILF race, “Ms. Lemon, your eyes look like my uncle’s after he drank from the air conditioner,” I’m sure you can add to it—but let’s take just one to illustrate:

“Somebody put too many farts in this engine! It’s about to explode!”

Call me shallow, I’ve been laughing at this joke constantly, out of nowhere, ever since I watched the screener. A little of everything that’s great about 30 Rock is in there. Its ability to puncture Liz’s preachiness (coming right after her speech about how scripted TV is art), while also proving her right in its own way. Its gift for Simpsons-like flash jokes. But the beauty part, its perfection, is finding just the right add-on that will make a good joke great. Following Liz’s speech with a fart joke from TGS: funny. Having Tracy deliver the joke in a white lab coat: funnier. Having Tracy deliver the joke in a lab coat and a bad German accent: perfect.

My notes from The Office’s dinner-party episode, on the other hand, have few out-and-out jokes in them. (Though a few gags—especially Michael unveiling his mounted 20-in. plasma TV—were dead-on.) What worked about the episode were the moments that came from putting seven characters whom we know so well by now in a room together and letting them spark off each other: Angela recoiling from Michael’s offer of a hug (Angela recoiling from everything, actually—who recoils better?); Jim purposely botching Michael’s obvious clues for “Tom Cruise” in the game of Celebrities; Michael’s attempts to show that he’s happy in his Jan-ified condo.

This episode went harder than most after the comedy-of-discomfort, showing us the houseful of dysfunction that the show had implied was going on Chez Jan and Michael. But it also showed some of the weaknesses The Office has had this season. On the plus side, Michael wasn’t egregiously wacky, and in fact there was real poignancy to his attempt to force himself to be happy with Jan. But while I’m glad Melora Hardin has gotten a bigger role, I still feel the writers have made her too crazy: not funny crazy, not you-can-see-why-she-has-relationship-problems crazy, but plain old batcrap, I-have-no-idea-how-she-has-functioned-in-society crazy. Before Jan moved in with Michael, she was a funny character, but she was also sympathetic. If the episode had given us just a glimpse of Michael wanted to be with her—other than his desperate loneliness and the fact that she’s there—the whole Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf business would have been more powerful.

Still, the fact that The Office could have this problem is a reminder of its ambition and its potential at its best: when it pulls off episodes like this, it delivers laughs, discomfort and genuine emotion all at once. And if the evening’s disaster was over the top, the essential conflict—Michael badly wants normal love and kids and will tell himself almost any lie, sleep in any tiny bed, to get a shot at that—was still affecting.

I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the strike-shortened season plays out, though. Unlike 30 Rock—which is a hybrid of serial and standalone elements—I’d think The Office would suffer more from losing episodes in which to develop the season’s arc, and I worry season 4 will seem rushed from here on out.

[Update: You know, to be fair, this could also be partly responsible for Jan’s character shift; even though the crazy was there before the strike, it’s possible that there would have more of an arc of her slide, and the deterioration of her relationship with Michael, that there just wasn’t time for. Bottom line, though, she has seemed to make a leap from the woman who once encouraged Pam’s graphic design aspirations and encouraged her to enter a corporate leadership program to the woman who denigrates Pam’s “doodles” and whom Pam thinks may just be trying to poison her.]

Last night also made me wonder whether the shows would be better reversed in running order: I might rather have 30 Rock’s yuks as a palate-cleanser after The Office’s cringe humor. How about you? Are you OK with having your ice cream before your osso buco?