As I write this article, I’m just 12 hours from watching what I fear will be another disappointing episode of “30 Rock.” The show is now in its fifth season, a season during which it has gone from being the most anticipated event of my televisual week to my most dreaded 22 minutes. It’s not that the show is bad -- “30 Rock” is still funny (at times), still clever (at times), still better than “Two and a Half Men” (all the time) -- just that it’s bad when compared to its former self. The show is like a fading star trying to hold on to its former glory. It is the Rober De Niro of contemporary sitcoms, a metaphor that seems particularly appropriate considering De Niro’s cameo during this, the worst season of the show.
To be fair, I’m part of the problem. I have consumed “30 Rock” like few shows before it, watching and rewatching every season several times over. I quote the show incessantly. I evangelize on its behalf. I have seen episode 315, The Bubble, no less than 15 times and with good reason. The episode runs like a master class in comedy writing. It floats an old joke -- good looking people are treated differently than everyone else -- on top of classic character sketch humor from the utterly inept Tracy Jordan and the manic self-interests of Jenna Maroney. It has one-liners, inter-episode jokes that are funny if you haven’t been watching but hilarious if you have, even intra-episode jokes like the recurrence of Kenneth’s accent when he gets upset. It is everything I love about “30 Rock.”
Compare that to episode 515, It’s Never Too Late for Now, which starts off just fine but slowly deteriorates into what can only be described as characters acting like characters. The episode relies on a text message in the first five minutes to drive the plot forward. Forward, in this case, is to remind us that Jack has a baby, which is only mentioned on an episode-by-episode basis to the point that I often forget she exists. Elizabeth Banks, Jack’s wife, has been given the same treatment, as have several other minor characters. For a show that made its mark by delivering personality week after week, personal moments with interesting characters have lately been far too few.
Episode 515 wraps with a poorly executed tie-in to the “Murder on the Orient Express” reference made at the beginning of the show, replete with gasps from the entire cast, all of whom have been packed into Jack’s office as Liz gives a blow by blow recap of the episode. There were a few funny moments, but the majority of the episode dragged on at the laborious pace of lesser, laugh-track laden shows.
The way “30 Rock” is headed, it’s hard to imagine what Season 6 will look like. Season 3, which had rock-solid episodes like Gavin Volure (304), The Funcooker (314), and The Bubble (315), was “30 Rock” hitting its stride. The show was coming off a record 17 Emmy nominations for Season 2, focused on character and personality and stuffed with the ironic self-referential humor critics love. Season 4 was still good, but the glimmer and polish that earned Season 3 a whopping 22 Emmy noms was missing in places, most notably in Tracy and Jenna, who were becoming cartoonish instead of just wacky. It’s hard to ignore the link between Donald Glover’s departure for “Community” and Tracy’s rapid decline to sideshow status, especially when Glover’s portrayal of Troy Barnes on his new show sounds so much like old Tracy.
I feel a little foolish for being so miffed at Season 5’s shortcomings. What did I expect after the show failed to win a single one of the 15 Emmy categories for which it was nominated in Season 4? That statistic perfectly encompasses the show’s flailing, floundering nature this season. It is trying to recapture the fire of earlier seasons but everything about the show is different. Several writers have moved on to other projects, Baldwin’s departure is looming large, and, most recently, Tracy Morgan has been on leave to recover from a kidney transplant. As rocky as Season 5 looked at the outset, Morgan’s hiatus seems to be the beginning of the end. The simple fact that his absence has been written into the series serves as proof of his contribution to the show and further emphasizes the void he left behind. In that weird, true-life-imitating-art way, it seems appropriate that Jane Krakowski can’t carry the show without Tracy, a plot that played out in the Season 1 finale, Hiatus (121).
For all of my subjective musings about the show, “30 Rock’s” numbers don’t lie. The last several episodes have dipped below 4.5 million viewers, roughly half of its Season 3 high. I get it. The main reason I watch the show week by week is that I’ve seen the older seasons and I’ve watched the rest of the solid comedy out there. I’m on my fifth full viewing of “Arrested Development.” “Parks and Recreation” is only in its third season and I’ve already been through it twice. I keep watching “30 Rock” because it is still better than the crap the other networks are showing, because good comedy is rare and when “30 Rock” gets pulled, the television lineup will be worse for it.