Less than thirty seconds into tonight’s episode, we’re introduced to the lecherous, exiled French admiral/defrocked minister who officiated Jack Donaghy’s wedding. Coming back from the mid-season break, 30 Rock has audaciously skipped over Jack’s nuptials, cast aside the comedy of romantic entanglements, and cut straight to the non sequiturs. For better and worse, 30 Rock gets its biggest laughs when it moves two or three degrees away from reality, and “Mrs. Donaghy” finds it unhinged and brisk.
Notably, the twin stories of tonight’s episode, the accidental marriage of Jack and Liz and the stress that erupts when Danny moves into Jenna’s dressing room, never overlap in any causal sense, but are united by the theme (and overarching 30 Rock series meta-theme) of the ways that the characters map familial archetypes onto their work relationships. No attempt is made to bend these plots toward a third act collision, and several other mini-threads (Tracy’s illness, Angie’s internship, Pete’s awful family) are jettisoned before the jokes run out. Thus, the episode is free to explore the weird surreality that’s become the hallmark of 30 Rock: Kenneth is eating the meat out of pig testicles, Dr. Spaceman is serving in the Iraqi Republican Guard, and Pete is fondly remembering his wife’s post-hysterectomy coma.
Despite it’s aggressive pace, “Mrs. Donaghy” does end on a marginally touching note, and one that bodes well for the episodes to come. As Jack and Liz are interviewed by HR about their intra-office marriage, they’re asked a series of questions about the practicalities of their relationship. Some are cute references to the adventures they’ve shared, and others comment on just how much like a sitcom it seems (“Do you ever drink together at work, perhaps while summarizing what you’ve learned over the day or week?”). But Jack and Liz are left with an understanding of what they mean to each other — they have a frustrating symbiosis; they’re a mismatched pair but a pair nonetheless. The characters seem to come away with a sense of finality; that they accept their relationship for the mess that it is.
It’s my fervent hope that this represents a new state of zen about the state of relationship comedy on the show. 30 Rock is cartoonish in the best possible sense — it doesn’t base its comedy on the audience’s empathy with its characters. That would be impossible — those characters say and do insane things all the time. Its comedy grows instead out of the audience’s intelligence and appetite for surprise. This means, however, that gestures towards drama and questions like “Will Jack and Liz be able to work together?” or “Will Liz find lasting love with this or that boyfriend?” are sort of beside the point. Of course Jack and Liz will keep working together, and of course they will continue to drive each other nuts. Who cares if Liz’s boyfriend is The One or not, as long as he ends up with a hook for a hand?
Here’s to rounding out the season with no stakes, no pathos, and as many references as possible to cat rodeos. In gay guys’ apartments.
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.