This week’s 30 Rock was a great deal of fun– the type of episode that doesn’t attempt anything audacious enough to put it on the All Time Great 30 Rock Episodes list, but plays all the familiar notes perfectly. This is exactly the type of episode that I love: the setups are simple, the character movement is basically non-existent, and the script zooms from one weird setpiece to another. One thing that I’ve always found interesting to watch for on 30 Rock is the way that the writers pivot from one topic to another in a scene- when, for example, Jack visits Liz in her office, very often they’ll start out on Liz’s issue, crack off a few punchlines, and transition to the jokes about Jack’s subplot. The most frustrating episodes of 30 Rock can seem like long strings of these transitions, too busy keeping all the plates spinning to stop and have any fun. “Plan B,” however, had a very robust proportion of insanity to structure.
Part of what kept things hustling was the simplicity of the story. After “Queen Of Jordan,” with its wild metatexual premise and five or so interlocking plots, it was a relief to see just two story threads, each fully deployed before the opening credits. In one, Liz reacts to the show’s temporary hiatus by freaking out about her lack of job prospects, and in the other, Jack enlists his old nemesis Devon Banks (Will Arnett) to prop up Kabletown’s flagging gay network, and the two go head to head. Both of these stories sang because as the episode progressed, they heightened not by getting more complicated, but rather by finding a resonant subtext. Liz finds her job search hampered by the sad state of scripted comedy– in a world of reality shows and Transformers sequels, a comedy writer is increasingly a woman without a country. Jack finds that Devon’s brood of Brooklyn-raised children are not only Devon’s fatal weakness but also highlight Jack’s own singleminded dedication to his work.
As great as the thematic accomplishments are in “Plan B,” let’s be plain: this is the episode of 30 Rock in which Aaron Sorkin appears as himself to beg for a job on Nick Lachey’s American Idol rip-off. But not before Will Arnett is greenscreened into a presidential press conference to sass Barack Obama behind his back. Arnett’s semi-seasonal guest appearances always bring a welcome shot of anarchy to the show, and the added wrinkle that he’s a new parent, who spews nursery rhymes and baby talk even as he’s seething nose-to-nose with Alec Baldwin, is a great evolution of the character.
The high-wattage guest stars are definitely the focal point of the episode, but that same wild-eyed spirit animates the rest of the cast as well, from Jenna’s line of talking porcelain dolls to Simon, Liz’s prepubescent agent, to the revelation that in her native Holland, Sue is a celebrated police psychic. 30 Rock has set a high bar for itself– after five seasons of aggressive free-associational comedy, it’s hard to spin out these characters in ways we haven’t seen before and to do so in a way that doesn’t push the show into complete pandering insanity. “Plan B” is an episode that keeps all the needles in the red while remaining surprising and self-assured.
Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian living in New York. He also plays one of those writers who never talks on 30 Rock.