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30 Rock Recap: Liz and the Viewers Feel Stuck in a Rut

30 ROCK -- "The Shower Principle" Episode 615 -- Pictured: (l-r) Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, Tina Fey as Liz Lemon -- (Photo by: Ali Goldstein/NBC)

The problem with a show as meta as 30 Rock is that when characters make cracks about things getting stale, even those jokes feel repetitive. It’s like déjà vu squared. Take last week’s episode, in which Jack and Liz turned the events of season five into a TV movie. It felt like a self-aware joke about the show’s love of being self-aware. But, as anyone who’s ever filled out an online dating profile knows, there’s a fine line between coming off as self-aware and coming off as self-obsessed. By the end of last night’s show, Liz felt like she’d gotten out of her rut, but I’m not sure the same could be said for us viewers.

Of course, even when it’s bemoaning its own season-six problems, 30 Rock still packs in more jokes than any other sitcom on television. It’s kind of incredible that a show this dense and weird has made it this far. Take the throwaway moment when Liz realizes the mediation candle she bought on sale is called “Summer Horsegrave.” 30 Rock’s writers built a rabid (if not exactly gigantic) fan base by creating a show that rewards close attention, and every time Liz Lemon complained about being stuck last night, it felt like they were throwing us a bone. That bone became an entire skeleton at the show’s end, when Liz said to Hazel, “You’re just another weird page, and I already have one of those.” It’s a line could have come from any number of critics or commenters.

Hazel’s bizarre malevolence finally started to make sense this episode. Rather than just saying creepy things, she actually does something creepy, sabotaging Jenna because she wants to be Liz’s best friend. At first, Jenna thinks she’s the victim of a curse because Liz has asked her to play Lady MacBeth in a TGS sketch. You don’t have to major in game-show pointing at the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks to know that’s bad luck, even if MacBeth is being played in this case by Mayor McCheese.

When Jenna refuses to take the part, Liz consults her journal from the previous year and discovers that she solved a similar problem by asking Cerie to step in. Jenna can’t stand watching Cerie get all the attention, so she comes back, but almost immediately, things start going wrong. A light falls from the ceiling, nearly landing on her. Then she breaks a heel (“My Johnny Choons!”). And finally, she gets caught in a mousetrap placed in her fridge. That’s when Hazel admits that she’s trying to scare Jenna off. But she made the same mistake Mickey Rourke made on that catamaran: She didn’t kill Jenna when she had the chance. The Mickey Rourke jokes, by the way, are a great example of how 30 Rock sometimes bypasses staleness through repetition. It’s like when Sideshow Bob steps on all the rakes.

Liz, meanwhile, is in a funk because her accountant reminded her that every year at tax season, she gives him the same stirring speech — she’s a new woman, she’s got a new hobby she picked up from her boyfriend, and she’s trying to be healthier in terms of her onion-ring consumption. When Jack tells her he’s looking for a brilliant way to remake NBC, she asks him, “Do you think a year ago today we were having this same conversation? Because it sure feels like it.” Jack points out that she’s probably going to do something comically undignified as she leaves his office, and of course she immediately falls down and gets her head stuck in the trashcan. It’s a meta pratfall.

Criss hasn’t been around for a while, which is kind of a shame, but his presence is felt all over this episode in the form of Liz’s new belief in meditation. When her plan to predict everyone’s misbehavior via last year’s journal falls flat, she tries to meditate her way to a solution. At first, all she can see are TGS cast members saying “Five now dog five,” which is actually Disney’s upcoming movie 5nowdogs 5 — the one Tracy has to film in Alaska to pay his tax bill because he accidentally made so much money in 2011. (He won a lot of scratch-off Lotto tickets, plus he found treasure on the island he owns in the Caribbean and designed Kate Middleton’s wedding gown.)

But before long, Liz sees Jack, dressed in guru garb with an Indian accent, claiming she has reached a plane of total enlightenment. Turns out he’s actually there in real life, trying to figure out her mantra. He explains that Liz’s problems are his best distraction. She suggests meditation, but he says he once pantsed Deepak Chopra while Craig T. Nelson taped it, so spirituality isn’t really his thing.

Soon, though, he’s in his office meditating on Liz being irritating when the solution to NBC’s problems hits him. The company should make couches! Hank Hooper likes the concept because it’s not too highfalutin (he thinks the word “sofa” is putting on airs) and it will involve taking the couch-making business away from his lifelong enemies in Vietnam. Of course, Hank Hooper also likes the idea of NBC developing a show with Maru, the cat who jumps in boxes. But then again, wouldn’t you watch that? And wouldn’t you need a couch to watch it on? Like Liz Lemon, we’ve all just learned a lesson in vertical integration.

By the end of the episode, Jack feels like his life is back on track. Liz, however, is not so sure. Kenneth asks her if she’ll write him a recommendation to reapply for the page program, and she snaps, “We’ve already done that, Kenneth. We’ve done all of this. All I wanted was one shred of evidence that my life is moving forward.”

But then Jack shows her the rat-infested space he wants to turn into a couch factory and admits that he needs her in his life. Liz thinks that means the cycle is broken: “You haven’t done that since — you’ve never done that.”

Hasn’t he? Maybe not in so many words, but over the past six seasons, Liz and Jack have learned that they’re important to each other in nearly every episode. 30 Rock might have fallen into a season-six rut, but the Jack-Liz relationship will always be its core. Maybe it’s time for two of them to let their friendship develop organically, and stop endlessly renewing their vows.

Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC