Each episode of 30 Rock suggests a Hollywood blockbuster condensed to a half-hour, every sensible plot development seemingly replaced by an absurd twist. The show’s keen ability to exploit narrative conventions while self-referentially satirizing them lends it the twisted logic of a Mad Libs word game. And with its rapid one-liners often coming in at under 140 characters, it’s the perfect comedy for our time; on the rare occasion that a gag falls flat, viewers can expect a dozen better ones barreling down the tube.
The writers of 30 Rock have perfected the art of the random aside. During just the first few episodes of the season, it’s revealed that deranged page Hazel (Kristen Schaal) is married to a comatose man who might wake up at any moment and murder her as revenge for her adulterous escapades; Midwestern hick Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) was bullied by a goat when he was young until his mother decided to eat it; and self-centered diva Jenna (Jane Krakowski) has to learn human emotions by memorizing them on flash cards. To a person unschooled in the ways of 30 Rock, each of these developments might appear to constitute a notable backstory, a running gag, or an episode-long subplot. In fact, they’re each mentioned only once, briefly, never to be referenced again.
This season is particularly heavy on the political commentary, but none of it is as memorable as the character-driven humor delivered by Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). In one recent episode, after showing signs of her usual prudishness while trying to conceive a child, Liz discovers that she gets turned on by the process of scheduling her sex life. She ecstatically cross-references her work and ovulation cycles and sensually color-codes her calendar, the sequence climaxing in a Staples trip in which she sticks a highlighter in her boyfriend’s mouth and drizzles whiteout over his bare chest. Because Fey’s self-awareness shows through despite her character’s obliviousness, it isn’t always clear when we should feel embarrassed for her. The blurring of the two personas is one of the show’s more subliminal sources of tension, reflecting 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show conceit.
The scenario also works because we so rarely get to see Liz escape her thankless role as the ringleader of a bunch of grotesques, albeit entertaining ones. For a comedy whose bag of tricks is so transparent, it’s gratifying to see that Fey hasn’t written herself into a box. The false ending that kicks off the season pokes fun at the excesses that mar some series finales, with Liz holding a fake baby, declaring that she finally has it all, and wistfully noting that she’s “gonna miss this place.”