30 Rock Recap: ‘Respawn’

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We’ve reached the end of 30 Rock’s fifth season, but I must say that it feels like the finale came a few episodes ago — the show’s centennial ep “100” brought all of the characters together in a giant hour-long fracas, put TGS at risk of cancellation and saved it with a series of gas-induced hallucinations, paid off the mid-season Kabletown arc and revolved around Jack and Liz questioning the relationship that they’d built over the course of the series. Since then, we’ve had two of the loosest, goofiest episodes of the series’s run. Given that 30 Rock draws its strength from a healthy cynicism about television cliches and character growth, it is altogether fitting and proper that they should do this.

In “Respawn,” we find the TGS gang straining against the weirdness in their lives and learning to accept that their “normal” is actually pretty strange. Liz lines up a house in the Hamptons to spend her break in peace and quiet, only to find that Tracy is her neighbor and he’s brought his tornado of shenanigans with him. In a roundabout way, this leads Liz to realize that everything she wanted from her Hamptons vacation (gardening, learning Spanish) she can accomplish by blowing off a ticket and getting sentenced to pick up trash in Central Park. There’s not much thematic resonance here, and it feels a little strange to transplant two of your stars into an entirely new sitcom premise for your season finale, but gag-by-gag this line works fairly well, from Liz’s appearance before Judge Dredd to Tracy’s stream of insanity. I challenge anyone to recall a Tracy one-liner that stacks up against “Can I borrow a cup of sugar? I’m trying to get a hummingbird to drink out of my penis.”

Meanwhile, the National Wool Council is wooing Jenna to become wool’s national spokeswoman, but they’re put off by her relationship with Paul, her Jenna Maroney-impersonator boyfriend. Paul’s forced to play it square during a dinner with the council president (Victor Garber!), but he and Jenna finally resolve to reveal themselves at a publicity shoot. Here again, tonight these characters seem to have been sent over to the set of Bosom Buddies, but details are what makes it, from the the Wool Council mascot, which looks sort of like a hobo version of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, to the sheep puppet on the Wool Council that Jenna serenades. It’s worth noting that in a mop-top and beard, Jenna could pass for a young Bud Cort. I realized that I don’t write much in this space about Paul, who pops up on the show relatively frequently. Will Forte is great in the part, and he’s always good for an offhand reference to a strange sexual practice, but in the final analysis, the character reminds me a little bit of an old Weird Al song — the whole joke is right there in the title, and most of the novelty comes from the notion that they’re sticking with it episode after episode.

And finally, over in the creepy Tennessee Williams department, Jack takes Kenneth into his home as a dinner guest and, increasingly, a surrogate for Avery, who has been kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il. This is a great forum for McBrayer and Baldwin, mainly because it’s such a reversal — Jack has come completely unhinged and Kenneth has to look on, trapped and disgusted. Kenneth’s triumphant monologue, in which he channels Avery’s cruelty to convince Jack that he’s being crazy, carries with it more than an echo of Baldwin’s triumphant Season Two simultaneous impression of each of Tracy’s family members. To see McBrayer do Avery’s crosseyed impression of Kenneth himself is sublime.

Season Five is in the books, and I’d call it a successful one. As I recall the season, I remember being most excited by specific lines and scenes that struck me as audacious or presuming a great deal of viewer sophistication. I would say though that on the scale of an entire season, 30 Rock is no longer energized by that same audacity; for better or worse, the writers have already said what they intend to about these characters and the challenge of producing a weekly sketch show. What’s left — the joy of turning a good joke and seeing some very gifted comic actors in surprising (if sketchy) places — is plenty good enough for this guy.

And let’s face it, finally hearing from a Writer Who Doesn’t Speak (Splitsider’s own John Murray) is legend stuff. Straight-up Jesse Owens.

Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.