Back in 2001, Homer Simpson had a crayon removed from his nose and briefly became an intellectual. Realizing he was happier before, he had the crayon reinserted and returned to his boorish ways. Replace “Homer Simpson” with “Tracy Jordan,” “crayon” with “decoder ring,” and “intellectual” with “guy who can smell again,” and you’ve got last night’s 30 Rock.
What 30 Rock added to this formula — and I think it worked — was a completely ridiculous, in-no-universe-does-this-make-sense twist wherein Liz Lemon turns out to smell exactly like Tracy’s father. She uses a discontinued hair pomade called Midnight Symphony that was sold in the seventies and aimed at black men. Dotcom’s grandfather used it. Apparently, so did the man who raised Tracy, up until the day he went out for milk and heroin and never came back. Smell, as Dotcom reminds us, is intimately tied to memory, and now that Tracy realizes Liz smells like his dad, he wants to do everything in his power to please her.
One of the recurring discussions among critics this season is about whether 30 Rock is trying too hard. On the one hand, the show has ratcheted up the level of line-by-line wackiness, sacrificing logic for comic absurdity. (See: Everything Hazel’s ever said.) On the other hand, it’s also spent a lot of time rehashing old plots and repeating jokes about its inability to stop repeating jokes. (See: Billy Baldwin plays Alec Baldwin in a TV movie.) If anything, it seems to be trying too hard in some places and not enough in others.
Last night, though, the balance felt right. The Tracy plot may have started out borrowed from The Simpsons, but once it was under way, the writers seemed to be focusing their creative powers on the story rather than just trying to out-weird each other. There were still self-referential moments — Jack’s crisis about where he’s going to be in five years could be taken as a gloss on the show’s uncertain future — but the cloud of burnout that hung over the last episode seems to have dissipated. And since none of the new-to-season-six characters made an appearance, the focus was back on the core group: Liz and Tracy, Jenna and the writers, Jack and Pete. Even Dr. Spacemen showed up.
The Kabletown self-evaluations were a nice organizing conceit, especially the way they translated onscreen. (30 Rock always looks the same, so those stark white backgrounds felt like a shake-up.) Jenna’s evaluation, written under the influence of alcohol mixed with prescription … exhaustion, is almost painfully honest, but Jane Krakowski’s delivery saves it from being too dark to watch. Still, her self-assessment is so sad that Frank, Lutz, and Toofer refuse to use it for revenge, even though Jenna went through their trash and announced their humiliating secrets to the writers’ room. It seems Frank buys Taylor Swift tickets, while Toofer took professional boudoir photographs and tried to mail them to Marilyn Voss Savant. “Our foreplay will be puzzles,” he says, sounding like Smart Homer.
Rather than delve into Jenna’s disturbing subconscious, the TGS writers play on her sense of kindness, making her feel guilty for excluding Lutz from their prank war. Actor John Lutz doesn’t usually have to do much other than look like a comedy writer, which can’t be too hard for him, since he wrote for SNL for six years. Last night, though, he seemed to relish his expanded role, whether he was demonstrating that he was a good listener or convincing Jenna that Kellan Lutz was his estranged son (he’s actually Lutz’s grandnephew — on 30 Rock, not in reality.) In the end, Jenna’s fragile self-esteem rebounded when she realized that she’d been goaded into doing something nice. Now she’s only the fourth worst person she knows!
As for Pete, his evaluation was a different kind of sad. He wrote that in five years he’d probably still be at TGS, a prediction he thinks is optimistic because it means he’ll still be working. His current state of loserdom is a big contrast from his early years as the son of a congressman who won archery tournaments and played in Loverboy. “If it weren’t all true, I’d say it doesn’t even make sense,” says Jack in another flash of meta.
Since Jack doesn’t want to fill out his own evaluation, he decides to take Pete under his wing and teach him how to be a man. This backfires in all manner of broadly comic ways. Pete gets beat up by a boxing dummy at the NY Racquet Club. (Jack: “Why are you kissing it?” Pete: “I’m submitting to its power. It’s the alpha.”) He tells Jack that he was recently mugged by two 5-year-olds in a trench coat, so Jack urges him to reclaim his power by shaving his head. But it turns out Pete has a birthmark under his hair that looks like a swastika made of penises. When he loses his temper and shouts at Jack, Jack’s thrilled — he feels like he’s pushed Pete into standing up for himself.
Two final things about last night’s episode: The bit about Dukie getting popped by the popo in the vacants was perfect because, while it obviously referenced The Wire, it didn’t contain any spoilers. That’s awfully considerate of the 30 Rock writers.
Also, Kenneth’s role was a lot smaller than it’s been recently. He’s funny, but he’s best in limited doses, popping in occasionally with lines like, “Look at us, laughing together like a couple of Jews watching The Daily Show,” rather than dominating entire plotlines. The judicious use of his character felt like a return to form, adding to the sense that this episode was vintage 30 Rock, even if it did pay homage to vintage Simpsons.