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Reviewed by Will Harris
n initial word of warning: if your first instinct upon seeing this review was to grumble and mutter, “This should be a review for ‘Studio 60: Season 2,’” you really should just let it go. I loved that show as much as anyone, but America’s viewing masses had already shown Aaron Sorkin once that they couldn’t get behind his attempts to blend comedy and drama (stand up, please, “Sports Night”), and its inability to pull big ratings really shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Now it’s gone, and we’re moving on to “30 Rock.”
When I reviewed the first season of “30 Rock,” my uncertainty about the show’s future was evident in my closing paragraph, where I said, “Maybe it’s wishful thinking to hope that ‘30 Rock’ will continue its development and become a true comedic force to be reckoned with as the years go on.” As it turned out, my thinking wasn’t wishful at all: the show’s second season was an unqualified success, finding its groove immediately. Okay, sure, having the beyond-gratuitous guest appearance from Jerry Seinfeld in the season premiere was nothing but an unabashed attempt to draw in new viewers (making its failure to do so somehow gratifying), but it set a trend for the season by proving that “30 Rock” knows how to utilize guest stars to their fullest extent.
This shouldn’t really have been a surprise, given how many years Tina Fey spent as a writer and cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” but after having seen so many other series completely waste big names, it always pays to be cautious. “30 Rock” dodges that fate without blinking an eye, preferring to create characters for its guest stars to play. Obviously, Seinfeld was an exception to this rule, as are Gladys Knight (who turns up at the end of a brilliant cast-sung performance of “Midnight Train to Georgia” and tells everyone to quiet down) and Al Gore (whose final line in his appearance is too funny to give away), but they are few and far between. Edie Falco has a recurring role as C.C., the new woman in Jack’s life, both Rip Torn and Will Arnett make multiple appearances as Jack’s mentor and nemesis, respectively, and Chris Parnell returns as Dr. Leo Spaceman (pronounced “spah-cheh-men”), the greatest TV quack since Dr. Nick Riviera. As for the one-off guest roles, there isn’t a single star who doesn’t offer up a hilarious performance, but the highlights include Carrie Fisher as an old-school comedy writer who drives everyone insane with what she thinks the show ought to be able to get away with, David Schwimmer as NBC’s new eco-friendly mascot, Tim Conway as an eccentric ‘50s TV star, and Matthew Broderick as a government employee nicknamed Cooter.
“30 Rock” has done an exemplary job of fleshing out its primary characters. By now, there can’t be any regular viewers who don’t understand exactly why Liz Lemon (Fey) is still single, nor how Jack has moved so far up the corporate ladder. The big plot line for Jenna (Jane Krakowski) comes early in the season, as a result of her summer-hiatus weight gain, but she finds her way into plot threads on a regular basis; Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) starts off with the focus on his marriage, but it’s the concept of his pornographic video game toward season’s end that proves to be the funniest. (Who would’ve imagined Tracy Morgan involved in an “Amadeus” parody?) Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) continues to be a highlight of the show as well, both with his new role as Tracy’s “office wife” and his dealings with his nemesis in the page pool, Donnie Lawson (Paul Scheer), but the last five minutes of “Greenzo,” which focus on Kenneth throwing a party that gets out of hand because of Tracy’s outrageous rumors about who’s going to be in attendance, are among the most hilarious of the entire season. (“Mr. Jordan, I saw you steal my sink!”)
Though the show still hasn’t managed to delve as deep into the characterization of the show’s writing staff as it should, Frank (Judah Friedlander) gets the spotlight on several occasions, including “Cougars,” where he claims to have “gone gay” for Liz’s new beau. And there’s a funny subplot in another episode where Toofer (Keith Powell) gets into a heated battle with Frank over the latter’s mockery of Harvard. Additionally, Pete (Scott Adsit) earns more screen time and has his background fleshed out a bit, including the revelation that he had been destined to be in the 1980 Olympics – if only President Carter hadn’t cancelled them, the bastard.
“30 Rock” is a series which is, as it stands right now, on the precipice of turning into the next “Arrested Development,” having had its second season score a big win at the Emmys even as its ratings do precious little to prove its greatness. It’s a show that battles with a reputation for being funnier to people in the television industry than to everyday folks, but while there’s no question that it’s full of in-jokes, any kind of businessman can appreciate the character of Jack Donaghy, and the neurotic romantic that is Liz Lemon is someone who every woman can aspire not to be.
It’s a funny show. Period. So watch it already, will ya?
Special Features: Actually, this set scores a bonus half-star because of the bonus material, which will thrill fans of the show to no end. It’s always enjoyable for ensemble shows to take advantage of the number of actors in their casts by having a variety of people do commentary tracks, and “30 Rock” provides a ton of them, with Fey (and her husband, producer/composer Jeff Richmond), McBrayer, Krakowski, Adsit, and Friedlander contributing to the mix, along with guest stars Tim Conway, Will Arnett, and Fred Armisen. Granted, they aren’t all winners – Armisen’s is almost painful to endure – but the majority of them are a lot of fun, with a perfect example being the one with Conway and McBrayer, where the two of them spend the entire episode offering up false trivia about the proceedings. (McBrayer assures Conway that the role of Liz Lemon is played in this episode by Tina Fey but is “sometimes played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and sometimes played by the young boy that was in ‘Jerry Maguire.’”)
There’s a filmed table read of the season finale, “Cooter,” which is huge fun to watch, since you get to see the cast members laugh at each others’ lines (and discover that the recording session for Tracy’s pornographic video game originally featured a part for Helen Mirren); also included is “‘30 Rock’ Live at the UCB Theater,” where the majority of the cast did a live charity performance of a then-upcoming episode during the writer’s strike. Furthermore, we get coverage of “The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Presents: An Evening with ’30 Rock,’” which was hosted by NBC newsman Brian Williams, and a featurette which details Fey’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live.”