’30 Rock’ Delivered a Hit When it Became a Show Within a Show
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“I’m not going to get sucked into your crazy, reality show nonsense.”
“Liz, I’m so mad at you for that thing you did!”
HURLS WINE AT HER
30 Rock is a show that was never lacking in ambition. Look no further than its series finale and the crazy note that it ends on to see how much of a chameleon and cartoon it was capable of becoming. While Tina Fey’s groundbreaking sitcom would operate at a Simpsons-esque velocity and become an inspiration for countless comedies that would follow, it still wasn’t afraid to mix things up in a big way. This is a show that would do two live episodes after all, as giant tributes to classic comedy.
30 Rock’s fifth season faced some production hiccups in the form of Tracy Morgan needing to undergo kidney surgery, an event that would remove him from several episodes of the season. Ever the optimists, the show would spin this bad news in several creative ways, one of which was creating episodes that worked around Tracy’s absence and put focus on other characters. Accordingly, it kind of feels like a slam dunk to have a whole episode from Tracy’s wife’s (Sherri Shepherd) perspective, via her Real Housewives-esque reality show Queen of Jordan, that’s largely about her enjoying this time in the spotlight while Liz tries to get Tracy back in the picture.
What’s crazy is that Queen of Jordan isn’t even some long-running joke through the history of the series. There’s a passing reference to Tracy’s wife, Angie, having a reality show a mere six episodes earlier in “Mrs. Donaghy,” with the following episode going as far as featuring crew members from the program following Tracy around. But before you really even have time to process the joke, you’re getting a full-fledged installment of it. It’s a bold move on 30 Rock’s part, and one that feels like it’s much more fueled to amuse the staff of the show than anything else. Regardless of the motives behind it and how much of a joke it might have been, it ends up becoming the means for a very effective episode of the show. In fact, “Queen of Jordan” saw such praise that 30 Rock would even hastily turn out another entry a season later in the form of, “Queen of Jordan 2: The Mystery of the Phantom Pooper,” a solid, but less innovative episode.
This reality TV lens means that the episode amps up the “shaky cam,” filming typical 30 Rock proceedings in a more handheld approach. Naturally, the talking head segments that dominate reality shows are also here in abundance, with them either showing Jordan’s stars vamping it up, or 30 Rock’s cast explaining their bemusement. More than this though, we even see the artifice getting in the way of things, like in an instance early on where Jack trips on the cameramen’s cables, falling over, and subsequently demanding that the footage not be used. In fact, most of Jack’s time in the episode sees him worrying over how he’s coming off on the cameras. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we see opportunistic characters like Jenna playing to the cameras endlessly, trying to milk Queen of Jordan’s construct for an easy ride. Seeing perfect characterization like this come out in these sort of departures in form makes these experiments even more justifiable. It’s like when Scully is trying to hide from the live cameras that are on her in “X-COPS” — it just makes sense.
What’s interesting is that we’ve seen other installments like this before — like Childrens Hospital’s “British Hospital” — but here the main cast isn’t just discarded in lieu of a completely different group of people (although they are all slyly listed as “guest starring”). 30 Rock’s usual opening credits instead see replacement with Queen of Jordan’s (complete with Bravo’s logo), and cleverly, Wigfield’s script has this “new” cast invade the old one, forcing its reality show structure (and situations) on it in the process. That means that we still get classic 30 Rock scenes like Liz running a writers meeting, or Jack lambasting the network, only they’re filtered through Angie or Randi or whichever of these Queen of Jordan characters the show is following at the moment. It’s a great way to get new life out of traditional scenes from the show, but also a really inspired way of having their new storytelling still reflect the old. This is hardly the dismantling of the show that the facelift may lead you to believe that it is.
Due to this actually being an episode of Queen of Jordan, all of the plotlines in it are appropriately sensationalistic in the manipulative style of reality TV. Frank’s B-story comes in the form of a sex scandal where Lynn Onkman (Susan Sarandon), a sex offender and former teacher, is released from prison after having sex with Frank when he was 14. Elsewhere Jordan’s Portia gets into real talk with Jenna about alcoholism, with her nearly ending up in rehab in the process. And of course, if you ever wanted to see Liz Lemon getting her hair pulled or flipping tables, this is going to be your only opportunity.
All of this ends up highlighting how important Tracy is to everyone. It’s a strong episode for Liz demonstrating how much a part of her family Tracy is, but also for actually hinting at the pained truth buried in Angie and Tracy’s relationship, too. Sometimes it takes going through the most ridiculous situations, having your weave yanked and your table flipped to realize just how thick as thieves you are with someone.