After dipping its toe early into the pool of clip-show cliche, Thursday’s 100th episode of 30 Rock employs an entire series worth of ethos to examine and celebrate five seasons of camaraderie and tumult amongst its cast of mechanicals. For all of the characters’ desire to recapture that which they perceive they lost this week- Jenna, her fame and relevancy; Tracy, his bacchanalian notoriety; Jack and Liz, their professional and personal aspirations- the episode’s dizzy mix of honest-to-goodness flashbacks, familiar faces dropping by, and gas-induced dementia posits that even the salad days of five years ago were not as rosy as we’d like to remember. This structural conceit and general dark streak really catapult “100” above and beyond the tropes of the “remember when” sitcom episode, suggesting that the cast and crew of TGS aren’t necessarily people who live to create television. Just as often, they’re people creating television as a substitute for living.
“You did 99 shows against all odds and reason,” jolly Kabletown CEO Hank Hooper announces to Liz and Jack of his plans to cancel TGS in Tracy’s absence. “That’s something. Now it’s time to give it a rest.” While this news sets our characters into action, to Liz action simply means putting on the best show she can given the circumstances: in this case, a building full of noxious gas and the return of slimy ex Dennis “Rat King” Duffy (Dean Winters). I’m a sucker for the dramatic device of the potion/lozenge/gas leak that makes everyone tell the truth and act from their true nature, and Liz’s drugged call to Dennis is certainly her at her weakest (Kimiko the body pillow would never give someone the nickname “dummy”). But just as TGS is a show that TV Guide once called “still on,” Dennis was always “there,” and the shitty pager salesman boyfriend is better than the imaginary boyfriend. To the leather-necked Jack, however, action means finding an enemy and destroying it. In this case, the enemy would be Liz. Were he not so swept up in the minutia of this sketch comedy show, after all, Jack could be on the cover of Meetings magazine, or designing electric vaginas for GE, or so he’d like to believe. Jack’s boardroom swagger has begun to seriously stagger of late, as pointed out by the über-successful Sideways universe Jack, the first of three hallucinatory time-traveling dopplegangers who visit Donaghy through the episode. The Dickensian haunting serves its purpose in lesson learning, but like Liz, Jack does everything short of out and out admitting that TGS should be canceled. Either way, he’s going to have to deal with the disconnect between the dreams he still holds and the life he actually leads.
This was a particularly vulnerable week for all of our key players. Even Tracy, while no longer hiding in a warehouse in Queens watching vintage pornography, is still desperate to lower the public’s expectations of him in the wake of his Oscar win. For a time the only TGSer to avoid the effects of the gas-filled building, Tracy trots out old gems of bad behavior in hopes of recapturing some former scandal: crass talk shows appearances, shirtless Jedi swordplay, taking Matt Lauer to task. As public meltdown after public meltdown is perceived as great art however, he grows ever depressed and withdrawn, trapped in what Diane Arbus dubbed “the gap between intention and effect.” For sheer style alone, burning out will always have the advantage over fading away. For Tracy, that style is his life force.
It’s not out of character to see Jenna chasing a new way to get attention, but her “baby crazy” plot got a serendipitous injection of gravity given that actress Jane Krakowski gave birth to her first child the very same day of “100”’ hit the air. So here’s hoping the little uterus turd doesn’t stand in the way of Jenna’s daytime talk show.
It’s strange recapping a single episode of a television show that feels like a love song to the entire series. I’ve glossed over most of the references to the show’s short, rich history sprinkled through the episode, but suffice it to say it does my heart good to see Alan Garkle stuck in the stairwell. Speaking to my older brother about tonight’s episode, he raised the point that in so neatly folding back in on itself (all the way back to the series’ pilot, no less), “100” could serve very satisfyingly as 30 Rock’s series finale. The TGS family is no stranger to “all’s well that ends well” resolutions, and I don’t think anybody has ever questioned Jack and Liz’ very real affection for one another (or Kenneth’s immortality, for that matter). To so definitively put a button on bits and character arcs alike that have been years in the making gives pause as to where the series will go from here, if only for the final two episodes of the season. For now, we’re going to need an Obama cold open, a Fart Doctor, and you know what? Write up that bum’s Empire State Building idea- 30 Rock enters syndication this fall on both Comedy Central and WGN America.
To a hundred more episodes.