Thursday, September 30, 2010

Very Funny, But Starting To Crack, 30 Rock Season Three Is A Good DVD Set.

The Good: Funny, Decent enough character development, Good bonus features.
The Bad: Reliance on guest stars, Lighter on bonus features than I'd like.
The Basics: Arguably one of the great workplace comedies of the last few years, 30 Rock begins to feel strangely repetitive in the third season, especially in its reliance on guest actors.

My wife has fallen in love with 30 Rock. That means in very short order the last few weeks, we have watched 30 Rock Season 1 (click here for my review!) and 30 Rock Season 2 (and if you click here, it will take you to my review!) on DVD and it is of little surprise to anyone that I went out of my way to make sure I got in 30 Rock Season 3 as soon as we could. We made it through the three-disc set in the course of two days, so that can tell you the push we had to watch new (to us) episodes. And while she absolutely loves the show and the season, in the third season of 30 Rock, I began to feel too often that I was seeing something I had seen before. Don't get me wrong: 30 Rock is still truly wonderful serialized comedy, but in the third season, some of the more intriguing characters are minimized (the potential of Twofer from the first season has been completely lost by this one) and the leads have begun to settle into more familiar ruts, er, roles.

That said, there is no good reason I can find not to pick up 30 Rock Season Three (unless one is waiting for it to go off the air and for the inevitable “Complete Series” pack that will come then). The show is still the funniest thing on television and it is often the most clever, despite having some annoyingly melodramatic moments or times when the characters develop more into caricatures of themselves. In fact, one of the most disturbing aspects of the DVD presentation of 30 Rock Season 3 comes when it shows one of the actors to be close to one of his character's less positive traits. And in that, the bonus feature (in this case, a table read of one of the episodes) is more painful to watch than anything. Because the show is serialized, it helps to have seen “Season 2” because the finale to the second season sets up important character conflicts that are otherwise baffling to the new viewers.

In the third season of 30 Rock, Jack returns to NBC confident and energized, having gotten out of his government job through means he refuses to speak of. At NBC, Jack begins to work his way back up the corporate ladder though quick promotions from the mailroom on up. But when he realizes that Devon is going to sink GE, he has to make a power play to replace Don Geiss’s heir-apparent. Several floors up from Jack’s job in the mail room, Liz Lemon pushes for the chance to adopt children. Unfortunately, her attempt to woo the woman from the adoption agency goes poorly, until she is knocked on the head and Liz has the chance for a do-over!

The season progresses with Jenna and Tracy conducting an experiment to see who has it tougher: a black man or a white woman. When Don Geiss awakens from his coma, Jack has his chance to ascend once more and Liz Lemon learns that she was actually the school bully by attending her class reunion. Unfortunately, Jack’s problems soon multiply when he inadvertently (or was it? . .. ) runs over his mother and he begins to fall for his Puerto Rican home healthcare worker. As Tracy becomes obsessed with becoming an astronaut, Liz Lemon’s past as a phone chatline worker is exposed and she takes a big step to avoid cutbacks at T.G.S. Sadly for her, Liz’s attempts to help everyone on the show keep their jobs gets her landed in sexual harassment counseling!

In the third season of 30 Rock, the show relies less upon cutaway gags and stays almost ridiculously focused on Jack and Liz, with Tracy and then Jenna picking up the slack. Pete is an almost complete nonentity this season and outside two b-plots, Frank seldom gets airtime or the great one-liners he had in the prior two years. Moreover, the show is becoming increasingly concerned with the romantic relationships of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy and less on the workplace antics of the "T.G.S. With Tracy Jordan." This has the effect of transforming the show into a much more standard sitcom.

As well, because the relationships of Jack and Elysia and Liz Lemon and the men she dates (including Gavin Couture, a suave recluse), are becoming more and more the focus of the show, the series takes on a more melodramatic quality than it possessed before. But because the romantic entanglements are all with guest stars or recurring guest stars, the question is far more often "how will they break up?" as opposed to "How long is this likely to last?" Liz Lemon dates a sophisticated guy whom she basically stalks and goes through a nightmarish time with his angry young daughter. Jack, surprisingly, is more monogamous with Elysia, though late in the season we learn a shocking fact about their relationship.

Like most of the best shows, 30 Rock is about characters and in the third season, the primary characters are:

Liz Lemon - Thrilled to see Jack back at the building, she tries to support most of his machinations which will put him back in power. She falls for a recluse and then accidentally roofies the man she is interested in after stealing his mail. She has a chance meeting with Oprah (or does she?) whom she tries to use to use to mediate between Tracy and Jenna and she begins to see her own shot at real stardom when she comes up with a character for Jenna that has a memorable catchphrase ("That's a dealbreaker"),

Tracy Jordan - Having made three hundred million dollars off his new porn video game, he is crazier than ever. His contract comes up and Jack fears how he might renegotiate it, but everyone is surprised when he tries to become an astronaut instead. When Dr. Spaceman worries he might have adult onset diabetes, Kenneth tries to scare him into taking better care of himself,

Jenna - Irked at Tracy for not giving her a cut of the video game money (considering she did voice acting for it), she falls into Liz's attempt to use "Oprah" to fix their problems. She has a bad hair day, sleeps with Frank and tries to get into the Night Court reunion as her prior werewolf lawyer character. She tries to nab Liz's star with the "Dealbreaker" sketch, but discovers she does not think as fast on her feet as Liz Lemon does,

Kenneth - The page is given a chance to shoot a Night Court finale when Tracy splurges on him. He once more helps Jack with his machinations involving Devin and he tries to scare Tracy with the Hill Witch when it looks like Tracy might have diabetes,

Frank - After a night of male bonding with Jack, he cleans up, decides to go back to school to become a lawyer and is thrust back into the writer's room when his mother sabotages his attempt with Jack,

Pete - He shows up to deliver a line or two. He is relegated to a supporting character this season with no major plotlines,

and Jack Donaghy - He rapidly works his way out of the mailroom to save GE again, but the recession hits the company hard when the Asian financial market collapses and Tracy Jordan gives panic advice on Larry King Live. As a result, cutbacks need to be made and he hires a hatchet man to do it. Meanwhile, he develops a love for his mother's home healthcare worker and discovers that his father who abandoned his mother probably wasn't his father at all!

By this point, the characters on 30 Rock are pretty well-established and there is little truly surprising that comes from them except in the form of dialogue. The actors, notably Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, now are perfectly comfortable in their roles and they tend to play them without any new spark or zest. So, for example, Tina Fey plumbs no new emotional or comedic depths as Liz Lemon this season and Alec Baldwin had nowhere to truly refine the deadpan deliveries which make Jack one of the most wonderful coots on television. In fact, the only superlative acting in the third season by a regular cast member comes when Alec Baldwin plays opposite himself as a Mexican soap opera star who plays a villainous character.

As a result of the actors and characters being so well-established, the solution 30 Rock has gone with to keep things fresh in the third season is a bevy of guest stars. In fact, each new episode in the third season is pretty much a vehicle for the guest star and the show tends to be much more focused on the guest star interacting with the primary cast than developing the characters beyond where they have been. Still, it is a pleasure to see Megan Mullaley, Oprah, Steve Martin, Alan Alda, three members of the Night Court cast and the bevy of musical artists who show up for the finale to perform "Kidney Now!"

On DVD, there is little extra that viewers get beyond what they get seeing 30 Rock on television. There are a few commentary tracks, which are funny and/or informative. There is a table read for an episode which is alarming in that Tracy Morgan seems to be having real difficulty getting around his lines. Still, the table read is pretty wonderful to hear what jokes didn't make the final episode. There are two whole featurettes on the making of the song "Kidney Now" and they are informative and impressive for the behind-the-scenes information they contain, as well as candid shots of some of the most impressive names in music today. There are a few deleted scenes as well, though none of them seem indispensable.

Ultimately, 30 Rock Season Three is funny, but it doesn't pop the way earlier seasons did and it seems far too much like a vehicle for guest talents than actually highlighting the powers of the cast and characters on the show. Even so, it's still better than most television these days and worth picking up for those who love comedy that can actually make one laugh out loud.

For other comedies, please check out my reviews of:
Sports Night
Family Guy Presents: Partial Terms Of Endearment

For other television reviews, please go to the index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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