Season 4 Premiere
Starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan
NBC, Thursdays at 9:30pm
Last season, I tuned into the 30 Rock premiere with high expectations, only to be met by the awkward-and-not-in-a-good-way SeinfeldVision. After a consistently hilarious second season, everything in SeinfeldVision felt off, as if the writers had suddenly changed focus. The episode proved to be the harbinger of a disappointing season that, while still occasionally brilliant, relied far too heavily on big-name guest stars while letting its strong supporting cast fall to the wayside.
Fortunately, this season’s premiere — the cutely named Season 4 — was a happier beginning. We got a good amount of time with all of the secondary characters, including the oft-forgotten Josh, as well as all the clever one-liners we could possibly expect from a half-hour of comedy (my favorite: Pete’s “Another actor? Why? They have so many feelings and opinions!” Okay, it’s in Scott Adsit’s delivery. It’s not as funny written down). Plus, Steve Buscemi! It had its flaws, however. The theme of the episode — drawing in more mainstream viewers — may be a bit too on-the-nose for some, considering 30 Rock‘s notoriously low ratings. And it wasn’t a standout episode for any of the main cast, Kenneth in particular. But I’ll get to that later.
The plot point that sets all the various threads in motion is one we’ve been seeing in a lot of shows lately: the recession. NBC (the fictional 30 Rock NBC, not the real NBC) is struggling, and Jack believes that appealing to what Sarah Palin refers to as “real America” is the ticket back to success. So he sends Liz and Pete out to find a new actor (plot thread #1), encourages Tracy to get back in touch with his roots (plot thread #2) and Jenna to “go country” (plot thread #3). Meanwhile, he cuts the pages’ overtime, causing Kenneth to lead a strike (plot thread #4).
I found Kenneth’s storyline by far the weakest, mostly because it required him to be shrewd in a way that was inconsistent with his character. Kenneth’s not usually sharp enough to call a bluff; despite the Kenneth-ified reasoning, it didn’t make sense here. Meanwhile, on the other side, Jack was a little too much like the Jack we’ve always seen — he was fine, as always, but didn’t show us anything new or memorable.
The Tracy and Jenna plots amounted to one big showcase scene for each of them. Tracy shows off his improv skills as he wanders Rockefeller Center looking for a friend (“Are you a pre-op trans-centaur?”), and Jenna gets to put her enviable pipes to use as she belts out a theme song for NBC’s off-season tennis programs. Not a big night for them, but so far, so good.
Liz and Pete, though, were in top form. 30 Rock tends to focus mostly on the Liz-Jack dynamic, but I’ve always enjoyed the Liz-Pete friendship as well, and was sad to see so little of him last season. I especially enjoyed their hideously awkward attempt to convince the writers they were “intercoursing,” and the confrontation with Pete’s wife in which she told Liz she’d be “glad to welcome you into our lovemaking.”
As you can see, it was a lot for one episode, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t one of the show’s best. No one character or storyline had enough room to do anything special. But as a premiere, it was just what I wanted — a little bit of everything I like about the show, with hints of more to come. Like Tracy Jordan, the show’s returning to its roots: fine performances from its stars, an excellent supporting cast, and an overall good time. Plus, Steve Buscemi.