30 Rock has been trucking along for almost 100 episodes, and there has never been one even remotely like this week’s. It has been completely remade as an episode of Queen Of Jordan, Tracy’s wife’s Bravo reality show. As the cameras follow Angie and her entourage around the TGS offices, we see our series regulars as they might be portrayed on a trashy Real Housewives clone.
This obviously scores very well on my “30 Rock Should Be Free-Associative And Weird” Scale, and the most positive effect is an aesthetic one: the episode lays the visual language of reality television over the show we know and love, and the shift to documentary-style wandering handheld cameras and generally tighter coverage keep the episode kinetic and fun. It’s as if the camera crew from The Office drove up from Dunder Mifflin and shot in the TGS offices for a few days. The performances of the series principals, which are fairly broad even in the show’s default mode, really pop when subjected to the Bravo treatment.
But even while it attempts so much with the Queen Of Jordan framing device and documentary camerawork, the show takes on another challenge — an unprecedented amount of story and narrative complexity. And several of the four (count em!) subplots are weird bankshots that would make for strange episodes on any other week. In the main event, Angie is using Tracy’s African sojourn as an excuse to focus on her own career and taking over the TGS facilities to launch her first music single. But since TGS is suffering for Tracy’s absence, Jack instructs Liz to convince Angie to bring Tracy back to the show. Meanwhile, Jenna is ramping up her diva shtick in order to steal the spotlight on Queen Of Jordan, and ultimately forces Pete to stage a fake intervention for her. In other news, Jack finds that on Queen Of Jordan he is being portrayed as a flatulent, clumsy homosexual. Finally, it’s revealed that Frank had an affair with one of his grade-school teachers (Susan Sarandon), and upon her release from prison, they rekindle their love. It’s hard to believe that in the breakdown of the plot of any sitcom episode, the words “Susan” and “Sarandon” would be the 116th and 117th words out of 126.
Now, even if 30 Rock hadn’t been temporarily repurposed as a manic reality show, it would be hard for all of that plot to find elegant expression in 22 minutes. The effect of “Queen Of Jordan” is pretty overwhelming. There are some fun details sprinkled throughout, most notably the fast food manager with the pixelated face who was willing to sign a release but suffers from Blurry Face Syndrome. But in general, there’s so much going on with the framing device and all the narrative balls in the air, that the episode expends most of its energy getting from A to B.
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.