Ladies and gentlemen, Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning, the grassroots movement to keep 30 Rock flip and free-associative, continues! Beat for beat, this week’s episode doesn’t quite stack up to the last few but still indulges all of the show’s best impulses: blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags, weird set pieces, and far-flung guest stars. In fact, many elements of tonight’s episode suggest that the show is coalescing around a new strategy for incorporating jokes about Liz’s personal life: keeping them purely hypothetical.
The main thread of ¡Qué Sorpresa! finds Jack railing against the affectionate, egalitarian managing style of his new Kabletown overlords. Jack’s character gets a workout in this ep — in the first act, he tries to endure the hugs and platitudes of his new boss with the eye-rolling and sarcasm that he usually reserves for the TGS staff, but he eventually lashes out, scheming and stealing ideas in an attempt to re-assert his hyper-aggressive style. Not only is this a great showcase for Baldwin, but it also brings us the night’s two most fruitful gags: an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that wreaks havoc with Jack’s voice-activated television (Detective Munch: “I want to go home and DELETE EVERYTHING ON MY DVR.”), and two separate montages of everyone’s worst suggestions for the company, submitted under Kabletown’s extremely liberal employee feedback policy. Any excuse to see Grizz and Dot Com bicker over a non-functioning slide projector.
Liz’s story is where the show is revealing its real genius turn. Liz ends up pretending to be pregnant to distract omni-racial reporter Carmen Chao from Jack’s wife’s Avery’s actual pregnancy. Following on Jack and Liz’s fake marriage two episodes ago, we find Liz bluffing her way through a social role that she doesn’t begin to understand. But the playful context — the fact that Liz is just going through the motions of pregnancy — keeps the humor fleet and fun. Contrast this with seasons past, in which Liz has wrestled with the prospect of an actual marriage and attempted to arrange a real adoption. Those half-earnest plots compromised the antic tone of the show and shut the door on truly weird gags like threatening to name a child Dr. Rufus T. Barleysheath or posing for a shirtless pregnancy photoshoot while screaming “Gaia flow through me!” This season, 30 Rock is finding clever ways to have its surreal cake and eat it too. Next up? Some sort of funeral rehearsal, I’d imagine.
Down in the third story, Jenna and Tracy bicker over a free sweatshirt. Not much to see here, except to observe that these two characters are seldom paired up quite this explicitly. Over the seasons, they’ve become proven sources of one-line weirdness, but are used less and less as full characters. Here, they certainly get their non-sequiturs in, but they also compliment each other’s character work nicely. More, please!
As we officially embark on the back half of Season 5, it seems like we’ve brokered a truce between the show’s battier impulses and the vagaries of character comedy. Onward!
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.