Well there’s something you don’t see every day. Tonight’s 30 Rock attempted a structural trick that I, for one, haven’t seen on a sitcom before. After 18 minutes or so of standard issue 30 Rock lunacy, Liz gathers the cast in Jack’s office to reveal that all that has occurred is a giant conspiracy, orchestrated by the TGS gang to provide Liz with a new lease on life. This sort of metatexual gag is just the sort of thing that separates 30 Rock from less adventurous sitcom fare. It takes for granted an attentive audience, one that’s accepting of weird whipsaw changes in behavior, and one that’s willing to cash in a whole episode’s worth of plot for a strange Agatha Christie reference. Even better, it provides a rare moment of pure camaraderie between Liz and her co-workers. On the other hand, it wasn’t particularly hilarious.
This week, having broken up with Carol, Liz has given up hope on ever finding love. So Jenna drags her to a club where she meets a young hunk and has a one night stand. Meanwhile, Jack’s unable to negotiate with his Trinidadian nanny, and Pete and Frank record an 80’s power ballad. “It’s Never Too Late For Now” finds some fun details in these stories, between Jenna’s adventure in white slavery with Eric Roberts and Jack’s nanny’s taste for shark meat. It’s also great to see Jack laid low by an underling — as much as the show runs on his cool business acumen and casual chauvinism, the show can often find another gear by playing his character in the other direction.
All that fun changes into something very different at the end, though, as we learn the logistics that went into staging Liz’s evening. It’s certainly an audacious way to end an episode of a sitcom (even if it owes a debt to Scooby-Doo). Speaking purely from a Gags Per Minute standpoint, though, it was more of a stylistic flourish than a comedic triumph. Even the first time through, Liz’s date isn’t the highlight of the episode, nor are the gags that are revealed when we see it again with the curtain pulled away. One of the benefits of 30 Rock’s hell-bent-for-leather style is that over the course of an episode, the insanities tend to compound themselves, pushing the climax into truly weird territory. The twist ending here carries with it a lot of exposition and explanation, and with the exception of Sue’s rampage at the club (and Grizz & Dot Com’s Monk habit), the punch lines serve more to fill in the story than to heighten the fun.
Incidentally, this is the first of the episodes that fall during Tracy Morgan’s hiatus, and perhaps not coincidentally, this episode finds TGS taking a break from filming. As soon as this came up in the episode, it occurred to me how seldom 30 Rock depicts the production of the sketch show around which it revolves. It seems to this viewer that an episode or two about the ins and outs of shooting TGS without its star would be a refreshing change of pace and an organic excuse to see the whole gang in action.
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.