Alright 30 Rock Nation, keep your loved ones close at hand, because we are officially in the weeds here. Liz and Jack are bickering with their significant others, the main threads of the episode are given over to making fun of Canada and air travel, and the handsome and gracious writing staff of TGS is nowhere to be seen. After several weeks of above-average episodes, “Double-Edged Sword” stays mostly within the precincts of well-trod comedy, and thus it only fitfully hits the highs we’ve come to expect. Sadly, more than eighteen minutes go by before Jack is driving a Winnebago with a mobile meth lab in the back.
In the main event this evening, Liz hops on one of Carol’s flights for a weekend getaway, but when the plane is stuck on the runway for hours, the two turn on each other. Meanwhile, Jack and Avery are in Canada for the G8 summit, but when Avery goes into labor, they bolt for the border so that the baby won’t be born Canadian. And down in C-Town, Tracy comes to realize the responsibilities that go along with having won the EGOT, and leaves to do charity work in Africa (this is mainly notable because it presumably marks the beginning of Tracy Morgan’s kidney-transplant-related absence from the show).
Liz’s plane meltdown with Carol is a pure example of the way that romance comedy confounds the show’s great strengths. The episode traces Liz’s frustration as Carol refuses to either take off or let people leave the plane. Their spat escalates to the point that Carol pulls an air marshall’s gun on Liz, and Liz takes an elderly man as a human shield. Now, 30 Rock is constantly spinning comedy gold from fake-seeming conflicts, wildly cartoonish behavior, and zero-consequence dives into reprehensibility. But generally, those situations take place within the network of TGS co-workers and their relatives — a gang of buffoons who are obligated by work or by blood to put up with each other. When Kenneth collapses with seizures that make him bray like a donkey, the audience isn’t asked to feel sympathy for him, because he and his situation are purely comedic figments. But Carol, a character for whose affection Liz seems genuinely to yearn, activates a more complex and less carefree relationship with the audience. When he furiously points a gun at her, the moment carries with it at least a whiff of real tragedy.
The more I write about 30 Rock, the more I realize that I love the show for being sort of a remorseless comedy shark — a show that values jokes and surprising behavior over characterization, audience identification, drama, tone, continuity, and everything else. Very few shows are so parsimonious with their realistic relationships and relatable human moments. And when those relationships and moments do take the foreground, don’t I squeal like a pig! Is all this comedy-for-comedy’s-sake actually a weakness? Would 30 Rock be stronger if the wilder arcs were allowed to play against straight romance, as happens on The Office? To my taste, those human concerns burst the antic comic bubble that all of these characters live inside. After all, if I’m to relate to Liz Lemon as a three dimensional character, how shall I reckon with the fact that she has a revulsion to sex triggered by references to Tom Jones?
Better to leave the bubble intact and watch it float away.
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.