As a recapper of 30 Rock, I try to read what people are saying about the show, as to avoid being another echo in the Internet’s chamber. From what I gather, this is definitely the worst season in the history of the show, in which the lead has turned from a brilliantly flawed superheroine into a dimwitted, hapless wastebucket OR the show is on a hot streak of great, hilarious episodes like it hasn’t felt since it’s second season. How can a show that had previously garnered critical consensus — the first three seasons were super great, the fourth not so much but still pretty solid, the fifth was an uneven return to form — now rip a nation in half (and by nation I mean the very small number of people who don’t watch American Idol or Big Bang Theory)? There are two camps and the difference between them comes down to how each has responded to the show’s new investment into its sentiment.
30 Rock was unassailable in its first three seasons, under the Larry Davidian “No hugging, no learning” comedic philosophy. The zingers and sight gags ruled and all emotion was happily sacrificed. However, as the show continued it started to drag — it’s consistent pace and rhythm grew to feel repetitive. Subsequently, season four and five involved a lot of figuring out how to insert legitimate character motivations into the joke rapid-fire. Sometimes it worked (the introduction of Paul has brought new life to the Jenna character), sometimes it didn’t (Julianne Moore’s Nancy never really made sense), but overall it changed the tone of the show. By season six, 30 Rock, besides making you laugh, wants you to care about what happens to these characters, a little.
This effect was amplified with the show being off the air for so long. A hiatus, like little else, can bring about an excitement and longing for a show. When Parks & Recreation came back last year, there was an overwhelming buzz surrounding it that helped foster one of the most beloved seasons of TV in recent history.* When season six started, the 30 Rock fan found itself missing these characters like it never has before. I always found Jenna lacking but this season she seems fresh, which can be credited to both the time away from her and the character’s increased stakes as a result of a genuine love interest and career success. The time apart reminded us how much we loved this show and that sort of nostalgia creates an impassioned viewer.
Personally, this environment has made me more excited for the show than I have been since I first started watching. It's as sharply written as ever but now with a newfound momentum and urgency that comes from beefed up stories. The epic Valentine’s Day episode was so jam-packed with happy characters, joyfully going through shenanigans it almost felt like a different show. Tracy and Frank trying to help Lutz find love (or at least lust), strangely warmed my heart in a way only 30 Rock could. Additionally, by grounding these characters more, the impact hits harder when they do push things to its weirdest fringes like in last week’s amazing Batman v. Joker/Jack v. Liz story arc. It’s a tough balancing act but one the show has so far handled deftly.
Though, when you ask the viewer to invest more in the characters, there is a greater possibility of them not liking whom they see. Early this month NPR posted a decidedly myopic argument about how Liz Lemon has become a needy toddler. They wrote, at 30 Rock’s “core, initially, was a likable, smart, profoundly flawed woman trying her hardest to navigate all manner of show-business nuttiness that surrounded her. Now, she just seems flattened and robbed of everything that made her relatable.” If anything, Liz, by becoming less flattened and more specific, has become harder to project oneself upon, which NPR seemingly confused with regression. Liz is not devolving, if anything this season is about her growing more comfortable with her absurd surroundings. She is further freed up by her relationship with Criss. Of all Liz’s boyfriends, he has been the most accepting of all her quirks, saying in the Valentine’s Day episode, “You can get mad at dumb stuff, that’s your thing. I’ll get over it, that’s my thing.” With a supportive environment like this, Liz has never been more able to let her freak flag fly, which for her means dressing like The Joker if he was an crazy old lady.
The AV Club in its admittedly vitriolic recap called the Valentine’s Day episode hateful and joyless. Though we had the polar opposite opinions, the fact alone that people could debate the emotional resonance of an episode of 30 Rock, says something. 30 Rock is defining a version of a sentimentality — whether it’s with Jenna and Paul entering into a perverted rumspringa or Jack and Liz achieving emotional resolution by him throwing her into a pile of trash — that is as singularly their own as their comedic voice has always been. It’s not for everyone, but the show never has been.
* I’m scared of the Internet support that will come when Community
comes back. Dan Harmon’s Twitter feed will undoubtedly burst into flames.
Jesse David Fox is a freelance writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He can't wait to discuss 30 Rock through images again.