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30 Rock Premiere Recap: Grown-up Love

“Okay, season five, here we go.” How else would television’s most meta sitcom launch into its fifth season?

It’s the first day back from summer vacation, and the whole gang’s getting back together. Jack and his live-in natural blonde (and … pregnant?) girlfriend, Avery, are back from four weeks on Paul Allen’s yacht, Liz’s gynecologist has committed suicide, and Tracy is prepared to give his nutritionist 110 percent. Poor fired Kenneth is the page over at Letterman. We’ve got a barn, let’s go put on a TV show!

But because no one ever expected 30 Ro— sorry, because no one expected TGS to make it to five seasons, some peculiar contract clauses are kicking in, and for Jenna that means being given a producer credit and mandatory eye contact. With budget cuts needed for the sale to Kabletown to go through, Pete finally finds the role Jenna is perfectly suited to play: cold-blooded enforcer. So long, Grace in wardrobe, we hardly knew ye. Jack Paar cannot say the same. So long, late-night car service for writers. Getting murdered is simply more cost-efficient. Having Jenna do his dirty work really frees up Pete to go to the gym, drink beer at work, and rape his wife.

While Jack’s domestic standoff with Avery over wall color becomes a proving ground for their entire relationship, Liz can’t bring herself to take sensitive pilot Carol seriously, despite bonding over a mutual love of the Barefoot Contessa, sweater weather, Muppets who present at awards shows, and crafting a workable solution for Palestine. The pilot wants nothing more than to be grounded, while Liz, despite always giving lip service to longing for a relationship, can’t let go of her autonomy. Even if that means potentially having to teach the cat to dial 911. Obviously, no romantic interest played by Matt Damon is destined to be a long-term one, but it can’t be a coincidence that Carol’s next visit to town, October 14, is a Thursday. They will be each other’s pubeshirts, but, clearly, just for a little while.

Jack and Liz aren’t the only ones testing the bounds of their emotional dependency. Tracy is despondent over the loss of Kenneth to the point of hallucination, until he encounters the real Kenneth outside the Ed Sullivan Theater and begs him to come back to TGS to pick the peas and the rice out of his fried rice. (“I just want carrots.”)

Time to indulge the new 30 Rock recapper with what’s admittedly by now a pretty hoary gripe: This far into the series’ run, is it futile to ask that the show actually be about, you know, running a weekly network comedy show? Even the zingiest writing — and that it has — can’t quite make up for the fact that the show’s greatest asset, its setting and overall premise, gets a bit squandered week after week, no? No one’s looking for a documentary here, but c’mon, just the stray insidery detail or three — Aaron Sorkin’s long gone, the coast is clear. More to the point: Couldn’t the scripts for last night’s 30 Rock and The Office have been swapped without losing much in translation? One of these episodes featured an extraneous, goofy comedy skit and it wasn’t the one you’d think.

As Vulture posited earlier, Liz Lemon’s spinster-schlub routine might be starting to get a wee bit tired, but if this season premiere is telling us anything, it’s that we should probably all pipe down and deal with it. Pathetic Liz gets priority over Producer Liz. It okay. Don’t be cry.

Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC