What happened to Liz Lemon over break? That’s the central question of last night’s 30 Rock, which sees a giddy Liz flashing Jack Donaghy, reciting an inspirational quote from the side of a box of Satchel Page-brand tampons, and eventually frolicking down the street accompanied by cartoon birds. If you’ve been following the trailers put out by the network, you know the source of Liz’s newfound joy. But if you’re Tracy Jordan, you could be forgiven for assuming she’s smoking crack.
Or something. The crack jokes were a little weak (it’s hard to say anything new about crack in this day and age), but otherwise, the first episode of the season felt like a strong return to form. After an eight-month hiatus during which Tina Fey had another baby, 30 Rock picked right back up where it left off, trusting audiences to remember everything about its twisted universe — up to and including Angie Jordan’s hairdresser friend from the Queen of Jordan episode. Sure, last night’s show could have used some Dr. Spacemen, but at least we got the next best thing: an indignant D’Fwan promising that he will never go back to putting hair extensions on dogs.
Season 6, Episode 1 runs with some good old-fashioned 30 Rock themes: Jack bumbling in his attempts to understand Liz, Kenneth cheerfully embracing his terrifying backwoods roots, Jenna insisting on her right as a celebrity to behave like a monster. First off, Kenneth thinks the world is ending tomorrow. He’s happy fantasizing about what’s coming to him in heaven (72 virgin margaritas, hold the salt) and telling his co-workers about what sorts of hell they’ll end up in (black hell at least has a jukebox), but both Liz and Pete find it hard to believe that he’s really done everything he’s ever wanted to do.
At first, Kenneth takes their questions as an exhortation to complete his list of dream chores, which includes “Fix that humming noise only I can hear” and “Organize snack table by food Jewishness.” But then Pete starts asking him about specific life experiences: Has he ever been in an airplane? (Kenneth: “Does falling off a bridge in a horse cart count?”) Has he ever seen the ocean? Even if Kenneth thinks he’s ready to die, he really hasn’t done that much living.
Jenna, on the other hand, has done so much living that for a while the first Google result for her name was a story about electrocuting horses. Recently, her fortunes have improved: She’s now the most avidly hate-watched star on America’s Kidz Got Singing, where she berates tiny children like she’s Simon Cowell judging Annie auditions. The nation loathes her, but she’s famous enough to appear in People magazine’s crossword puzzle, so what more could she want?
This week is Public Domain Week on Kidz Got Singing, which means the contestants are belting out songs like “Turkey in the Straw” under Jenna’s abusive scrutiny. Jack, now a sentimental single father, feels guilty after watching her yell at a girl named Liddy. Even though Kidz Got Singing is a real cash cow — unlike Cash Cow, NBC’s failed Cash Cab spinoff starring an unhappy farm animal — Jack wonders if it’s fair for him and the company to make money off of Jenna’s nastiness. He asks her to tone it down, but it quickly becomes clear that Jenna is incapable of being nice. “You don’t have a little rat face, you opposite of a turd with eyes,” she coos at one singing boy wonder.
Jack handles the problem by doing what he does best: He calls a meeting in his office. Sitting down with his own Liddy, who is now almost a year old, he tries to talk through his problem with the show: “Variety called it ‘boffo,’ and they don’t throw that word around lightly!” Poor Liddy hasn’t seen her mother in months, ever since she was captured by Kim Jong Il, so she responds by saying “Mommy.” Jack, perhaps willfully, mishears this as “Money” and decides that his daughter wants Kidz Got Singing to stay on the air. (Speaking of Liddy’s mommy, she does appear in this episode for a brief moment in the form of a photo on a Hanukkah card from North Korea.)
All of this drama bypasses Liz, who can’t get involved because she’s too busy skipping around baffling her coworkers with her good mood. She’s not interested when Jack signs her up for Desperationships.com, even though her first match burned his groin off in an accident at his cake shop. And when Tracy threatens to change his name to the Gentleman Formerly Known as Rectum, all she does is giggle.
Finally, Tracy decides to stalk Liz to find out her secret. His conclusion that she’s on drugs isn’t totally unwarranted: After all, she’s hanging out at Penn Station, and not the fun stationery store on the Upper East Side—the skeezy one with trains. Also, she’s taking mysterious pills, which Jack identifies as joint medication. In a flash, Jack puts it together: She’s going to Madison Square Garden to dance as part of the WNBA’s Timeless Torches, the amateur spirit troupe with no age limit and “Dance like nobody’s watching” as its motto. Duh!
From here, the episode’s two remaining plotlines start to intertwine. Pete goes to pick up Kenneth at church after the rapture doesn’t arrive. He’s going out of compassion, but when he arrives, he finds Lutz, Frank, and Toofer, dressed respectively as Satan, Santa, and Jesus and planning to torment Kenneth even more. Pete, furious, goes into dad mode and bundles everyone into his van.
Back at Madison Square Garden, Jack is delighted that he’s figured out Liz’s secret. As he drops her off at the movies, he congratulates himself on knowing her so well, delivering a speech that echoes his condescending introduction at the beginning of the show’s first season. (“New York third-wave feminist, college-educated…over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says 'healthy body image' on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for...a week.”) This time, he lays out a tragic schema for Liz’s date with herself to see New Year’s Eve. She’ll think she’s seeing it ironically, of course, but she’ll secretly thrill when Ashton Kutcher kisses Lea Michele. “You know me,” says Liz. “I love it when the swarthy girl gets the guy.” Aha!
As a child’s soulful rendition of “Camptown Races” kicks in, we see Liz enter the movie theater and kiss a mystery guy (James Marsden, according to the trailers.) Meanwhile, over in Coney Island, a motley crew of Pete, Satan, Santa, Jesus, and Kenneth in his lime green apocalypse pants gazes out over the Atlantic.
Everyone’s needs on this episode are so simple: Liz just wants someone who will appreciate her, dickies, jazz dance, and all. Kenneth just wants to see the ocean somewhere other than on a can of tuna. Even Pete, underneath all his desperate-family-guy rhetoric, just wants to put his dad skills to good use. Most of the time, 30 Rock works best when its characters’ desires are being thwarted. But every so often, it’s good to see the characters get what they want, if only for a little while.