Photo: Peter Kramer/? NBCUniversal Inc.
Particularly for a show whose ratings have rarely been better than mediocre, a 100th episode is a nice, round number worth celebrating. But it’s also traditionally the number of episodes after which even a show with mediocre ratings can safely move into syndication and earn some decidedly not-mediocre money for all involved. The 100th episode of 30 Rock, which of course revolves around TGS’s 100th episode, isn’t so crass as to delve into this bit of bookkeeping, but that might be the only aspect of 30 Rock’s own existence that isn’t funhouse-mirrored onto its fictional counterpart. The ratings for TGS aren’t mediocre so much as abysmal, to the point that Hank is about to cancel, jocularly, the show after its 99th. Liz Lemon is granted a stay of execution as long as she can deliver Tracy, who still is fighting, to no avail, to lose the nation’s newfound respect, for this week’s show.
Yes, this is kind of a clip show padded out to fill an hour, and yes, it had the odd fortune of airing the same night as Community’s expert skewering of that hoary sitcom convention, so cleverly executed that you can easily forget how cleverly The Simpsons executed it years ago. But (a) the flashbacks are kept to a minimum and (b) they’re largely the result of a gas leak, which is causing hallucinations and dementia all over 30 Rockefeller Plaza, despite the best last-day-before-retirement efforts of Michael Keaton. (Cameos abound, but none are more welcome than proto-Jenna Rachel Dratch as Weird Trippy Blue Thing No. 1 and a lightning-quick reprise of the animal wrangler from the pilot. Runner-up nod goes to former staff writer Hannibal Burress as a vomiting vagrant. And sure, okay, Tom Hanks.)
Liz is so out of her mind, she calls Dennis. Jenna decides to have Kenneth’s baby. Danny sees himself in flashbacks as Josh. Jack is visited by three versions of himself: One who has gone on to become the CEO of General Electric and Meetings magazine cover star he always planned on being, before his priorities were ruined by Liz’s neediness, a spiky-haired one from the eighties who dons a Walkman and Wayfarers, and Tron-suited Future Jack, who’s content with his family and his Tron suit. They also all have sex with each other.
Tracy attempts a morning talk-show PR blitz designed to re-destroy his reputation, but he accidentally comes off as a thoughtful artist and then rescues someone from drowning. His only recourse is to shoot Kenneth — it may not make sense on paper, but it makes plenty of sense if you’ve been unwittingly inhaling noxious fumes for hours. Tracy is back in the building, but moments before the show is to air, the leak stops and it’s discovered that the writers’ board containing ingenious sketch ideas is actually full of garbage and underpants.
At this point, it’s almost impossible to cite an Alec Baldwin scene that feels transcendent — he can act across from three caricature versions of himself and make it feel like business as usual. So his soliloquy on the roof, in which he tells Tracy that the most effective way to demean himself after a successful, prestigious film career and be seen as a joke again is to return to network television, feels like 100 episodes worth of pent-up comic material in one caustic paragraph. Sure, there’s been adulation and Emmys and image-rehabilitation and lucrative Capital One ad campaigns, but even those come with a cost; tongue may be planted firmly in chiseled cheek, but still, this might be 30 Rock’s most meta, self-reflexive, loaded-with-multitudes moment. Which is no small feat.
Liz busts the repaired pipe to gas the audience and the show somehow goes on with Tracy on board, prompting Tom Hanks to place a disgusted emergency A-list call to George Clooney as he works on a rug and hums Billy Joel’s “My Life,” a.k.a. the theme from Bosom Buddies. The point of this Very Special Episode is, as always, clear and singular: Television is such a vapid cesspool governed by the lowest common denominator that even its best and brightest are tainted by association. Implicit, but no less clear: By the same logic, it’s that much easier to stand a little taller by comparison. All you have to do is give a shit.