When it was revealed that Tracy Jordan’s self imposed African exile was a hoax (though a byproduct of Tracy Morgan’s very real late 2010 kidney transplant) on the last episode of 30 Rock, I admit that I felt a sting of concern. For a show so keenly aware of it’s parent network’s sitcom history, the plot tasted very similar to when NewsRadio’s Jimmy James — that entertainment workplace comedy’s wild card — faked an intercontinental balloon flight from the WNYX offices. With baited breath, I and a nation waited a whole two weeks to see this development through. In watching this week’s terrific episode however, I realize my worry was completely unfounded. Chalk it up to “Simpsons Did It” syndrome, the South Park-acknowledged phenomenon that in the history of television, yes, someone has probably presented a similar concept once before.
Tracy’s absence has made for some interesting new character dynamics these past few months on 30 Rock, and this week’s episode continues the trend: Liz and Kenneth team up to finally track down their missing star (“Like Cagney and Lacey without the slutty clothes”), Jenna and Jack find common ground in a co-branded, tourism-friendly horror film, and Pete Hornberger revels in the discovery that he is, for what is likely the first time in decades, good at something. In fact, while “I Heart Connecticut” heralds Tracy’s triumphant return to TGS, I feel that the show’s unique equilibrium of sitcom zaniness and real-world emotional fallout is best exemplified this week by Pete, a man who suffers crude joke after crude joke about his wife, only to confirm his matrimonial misery late in the episode by bragging that neither wore a Walkman during their recent lovemaking. Rob Riggle’s turn as Reggie — the TGS crew member with a tattoo of a leprechaun vomiting on a book — allows Pete the opportunity to be the bigger man (for once) by intentionally throwing an arm-wrestling tournament, a gesture which while simple, is made very grand and bleak once revealed to be only fantasy.
Reggie also gives the show’s work-stoppage palpable stakes for the first time in as many episodes; for all of Liz’ hand wringing, it’s not like we see much of TGS’ production even when Tracy does grace the show with his presence. Once again though, behavior easily relegated to “crazy town” is treated with honesty and tact — it’s hard not to hear echoes of Dave Chappelle’s 2005 flight to South Africa in Tracy’s struggle with public expectation, an act similarly chastised as the behavior of a nut, or crueler, a drug addict. The difference between Chappelle and Jordan is that Dave is so much more than “Rick James, bitch” while Jordan was born to play Sherlock Homie. Like Eddie Murphy releasing Norbit two months after his Academy Award nominated turn in Dreamgirls, Tracy knows his audience and himself. Who else would find a hero in Blinky the Pacman Ghost?
With Tracy away, Jenna has lost a partner in celebrity psychosis, but luckily finds a kindred soul in Jack, who at least shares her egomania and alcoholism. The most insider-y of this week’s stories finds the two conspiring to produce a torture porn film at any cost, even if that means bowing to the Connecticut tourism board, Wal-Mart, and eventually, Phil “Everybody Loves Raymond still does a 4-3 share in syndication” Rosenthal.
30 Rock is at its funniest when the show balances this media-literate workplace mania with heart, and “I Heart Connecticut” deftly strikes that harmony between nods that make the pop-savvy viewer look around the room to ask “but do you get it?” while still telling a story that engages those viewers that don’t pore over the trades every morning. The show accomplishes this by doing what it arguably does better than any other comedy on television: doling out character history. This is an episode in which we learn that Grizz and Dotcom use Liz’ office for their history club, Pete’s baldness was in fact a gypsy curse, and that Tracy’s pet lizard Jeremy has successfully removed Liz’ shirt in the past. Alone these are all solid jokes, and contextually they expand an established universe: we don’t question for a second that Tracy Jordan once got stuck in Temple Grandin’s hugging machine at a Golden Globes party, we know that Tracy is wild. When the writers tether this silliness to emotional consequence as they do this week however, the show soars.