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30 Rock Recap: Wearing the Pants

30 ROCK -- "The Return of Avery Jessup" Episode 621 -- Pictured: Elizabeth Banks as Avery Jessup -- (Photo by: Ali Goldstein/NBC)

Yesterday, NBC announced that 30 Rock will end next year after a truncated thirteen-episode run. While this news shouldn’t shock anyone, it does force us to look at the last two episodes of season six in a whole new light. Whatever happens now will set the stage for the show’s brief — but presumably glorious — final season.

The world without 30 Rock is going to be a sadder place, but at least last night’s show gave us reasons to be optimistic about next year. With just thirteen episodes in season seven, the show might be able to convince Elizabeth Banks to stick around until the end. Also, a short season might be just enough time for Liz and Criss to get past their gender-role issues and have that … plant they keep talking about. If 30 Rock was going to last for several more years, it might not make sense for Liz’s life to change so dramatically. But a shorter arc could leave room for a few baby jokes without turning the show into Up All Night.

This is all pure speculation, of course. But it would be pretty tragic if Liz and Criss had to break up just because she’s the breadwinner in the relationship. Last night’s episode handled the conflict carefully, without accusing Liz of being emasculating or Criss of being a boor. It helps that James Marsden has really found his stride in this part. His usual roles involve a fair amount of smarm, but as Criss, he gets to use his handsomeness for the forces of good rather than evil. Poor Criss looks so eager when he explains to Liz that he wants to help with the upstairs renovations: “If you take my profits from the hot-dog truck and add them to the $300 my aunt gave me for Christmas, I have $200!”

Criss might spend weekdays at yoga and lunch with the girls, but he still wants to feel like he’s contributing, and not just in the form of “Criss points.” He doesn’t want to dominate Liz, he just wants to feel like he’s the kind of man who, if need be, can support his wife and plant. Feminism may have promised us two things — fatter dolls and an end to traditional gender roles — but figuring out the new roles can be tough. I think Liz and Criss will work it out (I don’t see Tina Fey punishing Liz for being good at her job) but so far, the issue remains unresolved.

One of the pleasures of seeing Liz Lemon in an actual long-term relationship, by the way, is watching 30 Rock’s take on how couples talk to each other when no one else is around. That plant stuff felt spot-on, especially the way it rapidly went from being a cute joke to a repository of all sorts of secret worries and fears. Says Liz: “At my age, we might have to get an Asian plant, or accept an older plant with some behavioral issues and we’re a little afraid of it.” And a little later: “That plant’s not coming out of your butt, pal. It’s coming out of mine.”

As private couple talk goes, though, nothing beats Jack and Avery. No offense to Mary Steenburgen, but it’s hugely satisfying to watch Jack Donaghy reunited in competition with his ferociously steely wife. The woman spends a year imprisoned in North Korea, eating deflated kickballs and working as an anchor on American News Channel USA, yet she returns still possessed of the mental fortitude to trick her husband into confessing all of his secrets. As a team, she and Jack are formidable: They’re Jack and Avery and they’re going to crush this return to normalcy. But as adversaries, they’re even better.

Avery’s episode-long game of emotional chicken also provided a useful ending to the Diana subplot. Jack’s jealousy over kidnapped sports reporter Scott Scottsman seems like a relatively plausible reason for him to confess to Avery that he French-Canadian kissed her mother. (That’s Liz’s term for French kissing that bums everyone else out.) And now that it’s out in the open, maybe they can get past it. Avery seems to think so: “We kicked love’s ass!” she says. Next episode, she and Jack will renew their vows.

But who will sponsor them? Jenna’s search for a commercial backer for her upcoming nuptials started out sounding like another 30 Rock joke on the bizarre state of modern celebrity. (Tracy doesn’t know who sponsored his own wedding: “There was a lot of Fanta there and the police, so maybe they co-sponsored it.”) But then it turned into a full-on subplot.

Jenna wants the Southern Tourism Bureau to be her sponsor. It’s convenient, because her wedding is going to be slavery-themed anyway, and because she’s down-home kind of girl — at least, that’s what Leonardi, her hair psychic, says. But nailing the proper southern accent for the commercial means bringing up the roots she’s tried so hard to leave behind. Even when she switches to a classier British sponsor, she can’t say “water biscuits” without sounding like the girl from Toilet Swamp Cove.

Now that she’s tapped into her trashy former self, Jenna can’t resist jumping in when she sees Criss and Liz in a fight with some off-brand Sesame Street characters. (Let’s pause for a moment to envision a post–30 Rock world where sentences like that one no longer appear in TV recaps.) A news story about the fight identifies her cheap knockoff Christy LaButton heels as genuine Christian Louboutins, which leads her to an identity-based epiphany: She’s just like a knockoff designer shoe.

Kenneth’s reading of the article was hilarious in its optimism, especially the way he seized on the pronoun her: “So you own things, that’s good.” But this was mostly just a setup for the postshow kicker, Jenna’s new ad for a website that sells fake heels by Diana von Fistenbug, Alexandorp McKing, Merolo Blornig, and Jessica Simpson.

The ad went so fast that I had to rewind it three times to catch all the fake names. That’s 30 Rock at its best — a constant flow of jokes moving at breakneck speed. Last night felt especially packed with good bits: Mayor Boo-mberg dressed as a ghost at the ThanksChristmasValen-EasterWeenofJuly party; Jenna’s sex column for Cosmo, her 14-year-old neighbor; Tracy’s evolving relationship with Siri. (“Tracy, Jessica Tandy’s zombie is coming to find you. Is that correct?”) It’s going to be tough to cram a season’s worth of this kind of thing into thirteen episodes, but if anyone can do it, it’s the 30 Rock writers. In the meantime, can we get some outtakes from Liz Lemon’s year-in-review presentation? There are certainly worse ways to spend an hour than listening to Tina Fey rap about Channing Tatum’s meteoric rise.

Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC