Near the end of NBC’s one-night-only 30 Rock reunion-special episode, Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) is in the middle of a presentation for the all-virtual NBC upfronts. As was foretold early in the run of 30 Rock and fulfilled in the series finale, Kenneth has risen from the level of lowly NBC page to its head of content, and he’s pitching an entire programming slate to a roomful of advertisers he’s hoping will buy his products. Kenneth introduces a slate of popular NBC personalities, including Jimmy Fallon, who tout NBC’s promised multi-brand targeted advertising prowess, which will integrate advertising and content so smoothly that no one will be able to tell the difference. While a bad voice-over interrupts to insert the product types and Fallon slips into overly exaggerated lip sync, he promises that NBC will “find a way to make your dog food / insurance / type 2 diabetes medicine a seamless part of the story.”
It’s funny! This onetime return is a reminder that the show’s rhythms were always beguilingly good, and in that sense, 30 Rock’s still got it. For most revivals and reunions, the primary fear is that the revived show will be a zombie, something that looks close to the original but is unmistakably wrong somehow. That is not the 30 Rock reunion’s problem. In spite of the videoconference formatting and the stripped-down main cast, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey)’s patter with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is much as it ever was — kicky and derisive, icy with pockets of warmth. Its occasional dives into manic, unhinged surrealism feel unnervingly convincing.
In classic 30 Rock fashion, too, that line about making advertisements “a seamless part of the story” is just one small element in the episode’s larger metafictional game. The joke of it is in how obvious the seams are when Kenneth performs that line, but the entire hour is built to be indistinguishable from the onslaught of NBCUniversal ads woven throughout. In the first ad break of the hour, Jack asks Liz where she’d like to harvest some talent for a reboot of TGS, and rattles off a list of all the subsidiaries and networks she could pull from. “There’s really something for everyone at NBCUniversal!” he declares. What plays next is a long promo displaying all of NBCUniversal’s bountiful programming, cutting away from 30 Rock and into the advertising block. Or is it? It’s so directly tied to the in-fiction story of 30 Rock that the lines between them scarcely matter.
As a show within a show that was explicitly a part of NBC, 30 Rock has always played this game. Its title is an ad for NBC. Kenneth’s page uniform is an ad for NBC. About 30 percent of Jack Donaghy’s lines in any given episode could be reasonably construed as ads for NBC. About 70 percent of Kenneth’s lines also count. At its best, though, 30 Rock always seemed to be enthusiastically participating in corporate synergy with one hand, and doing its best to dismantle it with the other. Liz’s exhausting semi-competence, Jack’s sociopathic privilege, the total buffoonery of Jenna and Tracy — even when they were singing the company song, their very presence was always a suggestion that the company must be unimaginably dysfunctional. Like most 30 Rock things, that joke also twists back around: If the in-fiction NBC that hired these people must be beyond repair, the real-life NBC deserves plaudits for airing the show.
It was a teetering, sometimes uneasy balance, and in many areas the show often tipped too far. Like several other sitcoms, a few 30 Rock episodes have recently been pulled from streaming services because they feature characters in blackface. Its superficial sense of humor about race was often just an excuse to reiterate racism, something the reunion episode acknowledged for one tiny moment as a character once called “Toofer” (because he was hired as both a Harvard guy and a Black guy) insisted that there’s no way he’d accept being called that now. Without a stronger internal compass on race and politics, 30 Rock’s sly wisecracks sometimes backfired.
On the topic of capitalism and the TV industry, though, 30 Rock’s uneasiness was often the best thing about it. One of the most durable jokes from the show’s run is a moment when Jack Donaghy unveils NBC’s programming priorities, which include “making it 1997 again, through science or magic.” There’s no way to twist that line back around so it means the opposite. It’s unmistakably a joke at NBC’s expense.
This is exactly what the 30 Rock reunion was not. Many of the jokes and premises seemed designed to create that same twisting sense of spiky, winking subversion, and all the trappings of a messy TV fiasco are in place. Kenneth seems primed to fail at this upfront presentation. Liz & Co. are trying to bring back TGS, an effort that just cannot succeed. Jenna’s called upon to improvise an NBC theme song. The dominoes are set to fall. But everywhere you turn, under every wry joke, every cameo appearance, and every off-kilter reference, there is only more NBC promotional content. Even act-outs at the end of each segment are transitions to goofily appropriate NBC ads. (“Maybe I’ll watch the news,” Liz says, before dreamily listing her favorite NBC/MSNBC anchors. Cue: an ad for NBCUniversal news programming.)
It got to the point where my husband, paying only half-attention to the episode, looked up in the middle of a promo for the real upcoming NBC comedy Young Rock (based on the life of Dwayne Johnson) and sincerely wondered whether this, too, was a 30 Rock joke. It would make sense — 30 Rock was famous for inventing TV shows like MILF Island and Black Frasier, often including promos or teasers for them within the episodes. In the reunion episode, though, the corollary of that joke is a moment when Kenneth welcomes a list of products and companies to his imaginary upfronts (Humira, Apple, Wayfair.com), and it’s clear they are all actual NBC sponsors. In the original run of the show, the ads were usually jokes. In the reunion, most of the jokes are ads.
30 Rock knows this, and it tries to rinse out the icky taste of too eager corporate promotion by owning it as cheekily as possible. “Thank God advertisers are some of the smartest and most physically attractive people the world has ever seen!” Jack says, near the beginning of the episode. “I don’t do industrials,” Liz winks near the end, a reference to the history of Broadway-style musicals written as corporate entertainment. But acknowledging that the whole reunion exists to promote NBCUniversal’s new streaming platform Peacock does nothing to change that reason for existing. It adds another jokey layer to an already joke-filled reunion episode, but when you keep digging, it’s still ads all the way down.