30 Rock never hurts for jokes, and last night’s episode had plenty of solid — even hilarious — moments and lines. But in the show’s wink-wink insistence that “there’s still room for growth in this friendship,” it proved almost the opposite: The jokes themselves were new, but they were draped over a too-familiar framework that itself highlighted everything that’s so terrific about the show, and everything that is … less terrific. The Liz vs. Jack battles are still enjoyable, but the Tracy-Jenna story line and the Kenneth subplot just rehashed the same exact arcs we’ve seen before. The three threads didn’t even overlap.
On the Liz-and-Jack front, Alec Baldwin’s hair is starting to rival Martin Sheen’s hair from late-era West Wing in terms of its ability to change and to baffle me. Is that … auburn? If so, why? (Sheen got too blond, which did not seem very presidential.) Liz was trying to negotiate a new contract, so she fired her sad, wee little agent Simon and tried using Jack’s own teachings against himself. After learning from one of Jack’s leadership seminar videos that hair movement is a sign of weakness, a weirdly coiffed Liz faced off with her mentor, winning the who-speaks-first battle by wearing those revolting toe shoes. Eventually the “Jack-Off” led to Baldwin playing a negotiation scene against himself — which was reminiscent of the superior scene in the second season in which he played all the members of Tracy’s family. Funny? Sure. New? No.
The Jenna-Tracy story line placed the two at their accountant’s son’s bar mitzvah, doing a terrible performance straight out of the third-season episode “Flu Shot.” Tracy and Jenna have seen the light on their selfish ways at least a half-dozen times before: It happened in “Do Over,” and sort of in “Cutbacks” — basta. The only redeeming factor was Jenna’s vow to become more “hhhon-aayst.”
Finally, Kenneth. Oh, Kenneth. 30 Rock fans are sort of divided on the character these days. Some of us still adore his backwoods whimsy, while others feel the character has completely run out of steam. I tend to fall in the former camp, but “Today You Are a Man” certainly demonstrated why one might think the Kenneth well is dry. The show has amply explored the theme of people not appreciating Kenneth. People don’t notice or fully acknowledge his contributions? You don’t say! Swapping in Kristen Schaal was a fun diversion, but we have seen other pages attempt Kenneth’s Sisyphean job.
Comedies rely on a level of consistency for their character: Cliff Clavin is a know-it-all, Sue Ann Nivens is a faux-perky bitch, Lisa Simpson is an ambitious, brainy optimist. 30 Rock’s characters aren’t going to change anytime soon, and that’s fine, but that means something else has to, at least sometimes. Do the stakes change ever? Do the circumstances? Do the pairings? Is there any kind of ongoing story line that can push an episode to be more narrative? How about more connected?
Complaints aside, it was still funny. The best moments:
— Kenneth describing times when there was “no dog milk for the babies.”
— Tracy and Jenna have the same nemesis: Gina Gershon.
— Tracy says his house isn’t a church, “although I do let children drink wine there.”
— “I’ve only played this Japanese video game where you slap prostitutes to death.”
— “To white men!”