The Sopranos’ fifth season was merely okay. Year five of Family Ties brought us Brian Bonsall. Even the mighty Wire floundered on its wooden anniversary. So what are we to make of 30 Rock’s sudden resurgence? After last week’s joke tsunami, the third episode of the show’s surprisingly lively fifth season reminded us that Tina Fey — or, as we’ll be referring to her for the foreseeable future, “Winona Ryder in 100 Years” — and company are capable of much more than random bits of quotable hilarity (although there was that, too: Johnny Appleseed’s namesakes are very litigious!). In broad, Rob Reiner–mocking strokes, “Let’s Stay Together” tackled the meta-merger between “top ten network” NBC and its new corporate overlords, Kabletown. But what it really did was bravely, strangely, and ultimately quite amusingly charge at NBC’s actual struggles with diversity like Tracy Jordan going after Lutz. With a katana. Over a doughnut.
After dispensing with Liz’s complaints about how little respect she gets from her underlings (alternate nameplates stuck on her door include “Lez Lemon,” “Fart Barfunkel,” and — most offensively — “Paul Simon”), Jack rushes down to D.C. with loyal Jonathan, who may have forgotten to bring a shirt to sleep in, by his side. His task? To defend the corporate merger and advance the cause of vertical integration which is either mainly about farming or diarrhea-inducing tortilla chips (we may have missed something). Standing in his way? Congress! (Which is made up, these days, mostly of “former athletes, washed-up actors, and women.” No one can sell breezy misogyny like Alec Baldwin — especially with his newly chestnut hair! Dye job? Or is Grace from wardrobe really missed?) The aforementioned Rob Reiner pokes some fun at his reputation as a sanctimonious windbag by … being a sanctimonious windbag (who joins in a hubbub by saying “rhubarb rhubarb,” like an expert high-school drama nerd). But the real roadblock comes in the form of Queen Latifah who, as Congresswoman Regina Brookman (representing all of Rhode Island, from the “spoiled Jags at Brown” to the “thriving, flourishing criminal community in Providence”) finds NBC about as diverse as a Wilco concert (zing!).
The TGS gang’s resulting herky-jerky (mostly jerky) attempts to mollify Brookman allow 30 Rock to swim out to the deeper end of the comedy lake (you know, the splashy, grown-up part where things are funny because they’re uncomfortable and sometimes even true, and not just because Jack McBrayer talks to his shoelaces — although that happened, too!). Soon Toofer — er, “James” — is promoted to head writer (and immediately afforded all the respect denied to Liz “El Tejón” Lemon), and Dot Com and Tracy are given free reign to produce a show called “Let’s Stay Together,” which starts as the heartfelt tale of a hardscrabble African-American family in the seventies but is soon noted-to-death to include a talking dog. Liz makes an unfortunate appearance on a black talk show called Right On (hosted by Wire vet Reg E. Cathey!). She asks the lady host about her bra. Jack attempts to celebrate diversity (“The Chinese built the railroads! The Irish built — and then filled — the jails!”) but mostly sticks his foot in it: Brookman’s hilarious visit to the set includes a great payoff from a throwaway recycling gag and a near race war sparked by Lutz’s insistence on stealing lady power bars from Dot Com Productions. Luckily, Latifah is really more interested in GIVING speeches in a POWERFUL AND LOUD voice, all while not really saying anything (“Who loves pizza?!”).
Also luckily? Jack has three months to convince her that NBC really is a diverse place that deserves her vote. After all, “thousands of jobs and hundreds of second homes” are at stake. A great setup and a pretty great episode for a show that, like Stella (diverse!), seems to have gotten its groove back. And all this without mentioning Jenna’s pageant training, tap dancing, and revelation that her real name is Yestrepa Grokovitz. Good work, 30 Rock. We look forward to having Queen Latifah back, too. Just as long as no one tells her about what happened to Law & Order.