Even for a show that revels in pop-culture references, 30 Rock had a lot of them last night. Jack and Avery agree through gritted teeth to watch Downton Abbey. Liz Lemon argues she’s clearly not someone who bails, since she’s still watching Smash. Criss explains that his hot-dog van is named Van Der Beek, since he’s seen everything that guy was in except Dawson’s Creek. The guest stars alone felt like evidence of 30 Rock’s cultural range. What other show would find a way to use Dr. Cornel West and beloved New York news anchor Pat Kiernan in the same half-hour?
All season long, 30 Rock has been trying to find a balance between this sort of outward-facing comedy and more inward-facing meta jokes. The former is important because it connects the show to the rest of the world, but the latter is part of 30 Rock’s cult appeal, a way to reward longtime fans for paying close attention. Both approaches have their drawbacks, though, and this winter, 30 Rock went a little too hard on the meta stuff. The show started to feel bogged down by self-referentiality toward the middle of the season, right around the time William Baldwin showed up playing an actor playing a character played by his older brother.
Over the past month or two, though, things have changed. Not only has the comedy gotten less insular, but the story lines have gotten stronger, giving the cast more room to show off their skills. Last night’s episode felt like the ideal blend of plot, topical jokes, and callbacks. Okay, sure, it was a little light on Jenna, who’s been killing it all season long. But at least Jane Krakowski got to deliver this excellent taunt to a now homeless Hazel: “Can’t hack it in the big city? Gonna move to the Bay Area now, pretend that was your dream the whole time? Have fun always carrying a light sweater.” Ya burnt!
Most of the finale was about stabilizing the love lives of the show’s two leads. Jack’s marriage finally gets put to bed, while Liz’s relationship takes a step toward commitment. It’s a shame to lose Elizabeth Banks, but at least we lost her in the most 30 Rock way possible, with a plot device borrowed from Showtime’s terrorism drama Homeland.
Avery and fellow kidnapped reporter Scott Scottsman seem to have returned from North Korea safe and sound, but when Jack watches their hands during a TV interview, he realizes they’re tapping out messages to each other. Have they been turned? No, they’ve just developed a way to send each other love notes (and also gossip about Kim Jong Un’s fashion sense). Avery says they never touched, but Jack’s still mad — maybe because maintaining an unconsummated prisoner romance is approximately 8000 percent more romantic than kissing your wife’s mom. Scott Scottsman wasn’t around long enough to develop into much of a character, but we did get to hear him make cheerful small talk about his captivity: “I was kept in a pit where they made me beat my best friend to death. Awkward!”
When Liz said that it’s a bad idea to renew your vows, she was right. That joke about the lesbian wedding she officiated was a little weak, but that’s okay because everything else in that scene in Jack’s office was terrific. Liz, sarcastically, to Jack: “What Bill O’Reilly erotic novel are you living in?” Jack: “I suppose our situation is most reminiscent of The Commodore’s Lust from the Patriots After Dark series.” Follow that up with Liz yelping “Skinny arm havers!” and stopping, dropping, and rolling, and you’ve got 30 Rock doing what it does best: leaping maniacally from highbrow to lowbrow.
Liz always seems to be getting dragged into other people’s nuptials, but she and Criss are taking a different path toward commitment. That makes sense for their characters, but it’s still refreshing to see 30 Rock’s writers resist the urge to stage a big TV wedding, with Liz in a white dress yelling “Nerfherder!” when Jenna tries to upstage her. (Wait, is THAT how the series is going to end?). Instead of concluding this season with a proposal, they gave us a surprisingly touching musical number in which Liz fantasizes about raising her plant baby: teaching Planty to ride a bike, taking Planty off to college, supporting Planty when Planty comes out of the closet, and eventually playing grandmother to Planty’s own little sprout. Later, Liz tells Jack that a baby might come out of her vagina. For her, that’s a step toward maturity — last week she kept claiming her future child would come from her butt.
The show handled the bank-robbery fake-out nicely as well. Liz doesn’t even hesitate to offer to go to jail for Criss. She’ll be fine, since she has a mean face and can will herself to sleep in any environment. But that wasn’t Criss fleeing the scene of the crime on NY1; it was the nice young guy on meth who bought Van Der Beek. Nothing about this scene felt forced, not even the Dawson’s Creek reference.
As for Tracy, he’s doing some soul-searching after the Aryan Patriot Party names him Man of the Year. Cornel West drops by to help him become a better representative of the race, but Tracy’s so apolitical that he thinks he’s talking to Questlove. The problem is that Tracy had no black role models growing up, other than Darth Vader, ninjas, and some black licorice he tried to make into the shape of his dad. At the Civil Rights museum, looking for heroes, he sees his own reflection in a Rosa Parks dress and decides that his role model is Tyler Perry. He’s going to start his own studio and make movies for a black audience. When Grizz and Dot Com exchanged frustrated looks, was that a burn on Tyler Perry? Or do they just understand how impossible Tracy would be as a studio head? (Or both?)
The season finale also, remarkably, found a solution to the Hazel conundrum. Kristen Schaal is usually great, but she’s never made sense on 30 Rock, not least because we’ve already seen her play an unhinged fangirl on Flight of the Conchords. Crazily enough, it turns out the best way to take that character someplace new is to have her make out with Kenneth. The idea of ageless, asexual Kenneth kissing anyone is pretty amazing, but it was particularly hilarious to see Jack McBrayer and Schaal going at it. Is Hazel just pretending to be in love so that Kenneth will forgive her for sabotaging his page application? Or was there some little spark there? Only Kim Jong Il knows for sure.