(Editor’s Note: Contemporary TV criticism has a lot of people recapping and reviewing individual episodes of shows after they air, but there aren’t a lot of people reviewing seasons of TV shows as a whole. EntertainmentTell has chosen not to feature weekly TV recaps, since the format is distinctly hard to perfect, and we don’t have nearly the ability to do the task justice.
Since the conventional fall-to-spring network TV season has just ended, we thought it might be a good time to do exactly that. We begin with the recently-completed sixth season of 30 Rock -SS)
The season began with a bang, as Season 6 premiere “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” seemed designed specifically to answer the concerns of critics -misplaced, in my view- that the characters are getting static and that the show is becoming too cynical. We began Season 6 with a new Liz Lemon, one who was actually happy and free from her personal hangups and neuroses, so much so that she was unrecognizable to the rest of the TGS staff and even Jack Donaghy himself.
While Jack and Tracy chalked up the change in Liz’s behavior to any number of sinister reasons, including drugs, when Jack stalked her after work at the end of the episode he found the causes were twofold: 1) Liz had joined The Timeless Torches, a real life dance troupe of men and women over 40 who dance at the half time of WNBA games (hence the episode’s title) and, 2) Contrary to Jack’s assertion that she was going to the movies alone, Liz was actually meeting her new boyfriend, whom she was trying to keep a secret from Jack.
The identity of Liz’s new beau wasn’t revealed until later in the season but I think 30 Rock really knocked it out of the park in the casting department. James Marsden was just perfect as Criss and was a fantastic addition to the 30 Rock ensemble. He’s handsome, but in a doofy way which was perfectly suited to his character.
Like Liz, he enjoys geeky pop culture and other weird stuff, like role playing that they’re both in a gay male porn together while they’re in overalls doing renovations to Liz’s apartment.
However, there are still problems with the relationship (though nothing compared to the problems she had with, say, Dennis Duffy). He’s kind of a slacker and Liz pretty much has to support him, while there’s also Liz’s need to sabotage the basically good relationship. Marsden embodied these contradictions perfectly and, contrary to form, the season didn’t end with some insane, horrible end to Liz’s current relationship (like it did with the end of her relationship with Matt Damon last season) but with Liz and Criss still together and even contemplating having a baby.
See, critics, personal growth and character development for Liz Lemon! (Not that I think the show wouldn’t be fine without it, as long as the jokes are still fast-paced and funny.)
The series then embarked on a series of two episodes – “Idiots are People Two!” and “Idiots are People Three!” – that referenced the big, off-screen “elephant in the room”: Tracy Morgan’s insanely hateful homophobic rant while doing standup over the summer.
These episodes were extremely funny because they took the whole thing in a completely unexpected direction, becoming instead a story about self-proclaimed idiots -people who love the character of Turtle from Entourage for example- who see themselves as a marginalized, disrespected group. Their patron saint is Denise Richards, playing herself, and the episodes really get a lot of laughs out of this, in part because there doesn’t seem to be any low Richards won’t sink to in making fun of herself.
However, viewed as an actual reaction to Tracy Morgan’s real-life remarks, the episodes come off a bit tasteless. The comments that the “Tracy Jordan” character makes are so tame and harmless compared to what the real life Tracy Morgan said that a casual observer might think that the real-life controversy was much ado about nothing, which would be a shame.
After that, the show felt no further need to reference off screen controversies but settled into typical 30 Rock insanity. The next really notable episode was episode 7, the utterly bizarre “The Tuxedo Begins”. This was one of the strangest episodes that any comedy did this entire television season, up there with some of the weirder Community installments. In essence, for some reason it’s a four-years-later parody of “The Dark Knight,” yet far stranger than that description makes it sound.
Like AV Clubrecapper Meredith Blake I like it when 30 Rock gets “aggressively weird” and this episode, like a lot of this season, really fit the bill. But I don’t think this particular episode, or frankly most of this season, would be a good way to convert a non-fan of the show into a fan.
“The Tuxedo Begins” is also notable for introducing some of the funniest (and most aggressively weird) Jenna Marone craziness yet. Jane Krakowski’s character is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I imagine Jenna’s evolution as a character is probably one of the things late period 30 Rock haters complain about. By this point it’s hard to think of her as Liz’s best friend from back in their Chicago days or anything like that. She’s just a hypersexual, deranged cartoon, but Krakowski plays the hell out of her each week and, as long as they keep coming up with creative ways for her to be insane, I think it’s hilarious.
One of the things I like about late period Jenna is her perverse relationship with Paul (played by Will Forte) which simultaneously allows 30 Rock to ramp up the insanity and humanize Jenna just a little bit, as it’s clear they actually do care about each other. “The Tuxedo Begins” comes up with maybe the funniest, darkest fetish ever for Paul and Jenna to get into, “normalling.” You see, they’ve become so jaded with all of their sexual experimentation that the only thing that turns them on is to do the stuff that normal couples do: open Zipcar accounts, go to Bed, Bath & Beyond together. Jenna thinks she’s discovered the ultimate new kink, but Liz tells her this is just them getting comfortable in their relationship together.
For Season 6, 30 Rock also attempted to recreate the magic from two of their biggest stunt episodes of the past seasons, the live episode and the episode done in the style of a Bravo-type reality show starring Tracy’s wife Angie (played by Sherri Shepard) called Queen of Jordan. The first 30 Rock live show drew divided critical reactions. A lot of them felt that the strength of the show is its tight editing and performance, its cutaway gags etc. and this is lost in a live performance. For me it was just pure fun seeing them trying to recreate a typical episode live, with Julia Louis Dreyfus playing Liz Lemon in the cutaway gags.
The second live episode may not have been quite as fun as the first go-around because the pure novelty factor was gone. However, it was still hilarious for the clever cameos and great fake old commercials and TV shows. Amy Poehler as a young Liz Lemon! Jon Hamm as David Brinkley! Donald Glover as Tracy! If you don’t like that kind of stuff you’ll never like30 Rock. “Queen Of Jordan 2: The Mystery Of The Phantom Pooper” was also a surprisingly funny retread. It got the satire of Bravo reality shows just right, especially in the subplot in which Liz got into a pointless reality show type feud with a baby.
Season 6 ended with the typically self-referential season finale “What Will Happen to the Gang Next Year?” While I missed the aggressive weirdness of the previous season’s finale, “Respawn,” the season still ended in a mostly satisfactory faction.
As Liz and Criss continued to make strides forward in their relationship, and in a way that was sweet without being cloying, Jack Donaghy’s relationship with Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) ended. With knowledge of the off screen situation I’m not surprised the show went this route. Banks’s film career is really taking off and it’s unlikely Tina Fey and company could come up with a way to write her out of most of the season, like having her kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il, again. But it felt a little bit flippant to just end the relationship the way the show did, as from previous episodes it was pretty clear the two characters really were perfectly matched soulmates, and the synergy of their incredibly similar personalities led to some hilarious moments, like their deranged quest to get out of Canada so their baby wouldn’t be born Canadian, resulting in their hitching a ride in a mobile meth lab.
Margaret Cho, who used to play Kim Jong-Il on the show, hilariously played Kim Jong-Un in the season finale. As the credits rolled, Kim Jong-Un talked about the next (and final season) of 30 Rock and suggested Liz and Jack might finally get together like Sam and Diane or Maddie and David. That’s one thing I’m almost certain that won’t happen. Tina Fey has been firm that the show won’t end that way and the complete lack of any will they or won’t they tension is one of the many refreshing things about 30 Rock, a show that still managed to deliver a lot of laughs and a lot of unique strains of craziness in its sixth season, even if it wasn’t quite as uniformly great as some of the earlier seasons were.