There’s something to be said for 30 Rock‘s unrepentant adherence to formula. While The Office flounders ineffectually, trying and failing to shake things up post-Carell, 30 Rock takes pride in resisting change. In its sixth season, the show has repeatedly drawn attention to its own stagnation. When Liz (Tina Fey) tells her adorably goofy new boyfriend, Criss (James Marsden), that she loves him, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) observes how it’s “rewarding as a TV viewer when someone you’re invested in shows growth,” as if to point out how rare it is. And in the most recent episode, Liz realizes her life is a “stagnant, monotonous hell” upon reading her journal and discovering that she deals with the same problems year after year.
This lack of change becomes a theme of sorts, with things constantly shifting only to return to where they belong: Kabletown’s takeover of NBC leaves Jack (Alec Baldwin) in a weaker corporate position, but he counters this by pushing the idea of couch production to replace the loss of GE’s microwave business; Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) finally quits his page job and becomes a network censor, only to gravitate back toward his beloved position; and following her captor Kim Jong-il’s death, even Jack’s wife, Avery, seems poised to return from her captivity in North Korea by the end of the season. As Liz exclaims in frustration when Kenneth asks for a recommendation to re-enter the page program: “We’ve done all of this!”
By now, the characters’ repeated bumbling through the cyclical purgatory at 30 Rockefeller Plaza has attained a certain rhythm, a comforting familiarity akin to long-running sitcoms like Friends. As long as Liz’s “hell” remains funny, we’ll watch it, and for the most part, 30 Rock has managed to sustain its laughs. The writing’s inconsistent, but the show’s penchant for self-awareness and Arrested Development-style absurdity keep its humor from staling. Tracy, Jenna (Jane Krakowski), and Pete (Scott Adsit) show few signs of growth, but the cast’s unfailing enthusiasm points to an ensemble that’s only strengthening with age. (Unfortunately, talented guest star Kristen Schaal is wasted as new “weird page” Hazel. The character is a disappointingly unfunny rehash of Schaal’s role as stalker-fan Mel from Flight of the Conchords.)
If there’s one thing in the series that has changed, it’s Jack’s relationship with Liz. Now a father, Jack’s less ruthless, even regretting his advice to Kenneth to get a competing co-worker fired. For the first time, he admits he needs his distracting friendship with Liz to function at his job, her innumerable problems acting like a stress ball for him to crush and leave his mind clear. Every once in a while, these characters seem to care about each other enough to justify enduring their unchanging world, keeping the show’s skillful comedy of repetition from veering too often into misanthropy—as in a flat Valentine’s Day episode that revelled in pettiness. Snarky meta-commentary notwithstanding, Liz does actually tell Criss she loves him. Jack does mean it when he tells Liz he cares about her. As Jack says of progress, “Baby steps, Lemon.”