Monday, September 27, 2010

More Fun Than A Werewolf Bar Mitzvah! 30 Rock Season Two Excels Despite Being Short.

The Good: Very funny, Good character development, Decent DVD bonus features, Moments of performance
The Bad: Few performance surprises, VERY short!
The Basics: A very funny season of television, 30 Rock Season 2 is truncated, but what is on the DVD set is wonderful!

When my wife and I discover a new (to us) television show that truly seems special, it seems like we eat it right up! After all, it wasn't long ago we got 30 Rock Season 1 (click here for the review!) and watched that entire boxed set. Based on how much she loved that, we rapidly got in and watched 30 Rock Season 2. And after viewing it, the main gripe either of us had about it was that there simply wasn't enough of it.

The second season of 30 Rock aired during the writer's strike season and as a result, the two-disc boxed set has only fifteen episodes of the series in it. While it generally follows where the first season began, the second season is actually more funny and has a consistent sense of growth to it. Moreover, on DVD, there are plenty of bonuses that those who simply watch the show on television will not be able to get. These bonuses range from extensive commentary tracks to the full version of "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" playing on one of the menus on the second disc. Billed as a Tracy Jordan parody song, only a few bars are in the actual episode, though more of it plays over the closing credits of that episode. It is hilarious to hear the full version and it is enough to make one wish they had done a music video for the ridiculous song. The cutaway gag that "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" is part of is indicative of an increased reliance on gags outside the main narrative that are very common in the second season of 30 Rock!

For those unfamiliar with it, 30 Rock is the story of the behind-the-scenes antics of the crew working on "T.G.S. With Tracy Jordan," a late-night sketch comedy program on NBC. Coming back from their summer hiatus, the staff of the show adapts to the changes in all of their lives that happened over the summer. Liz continues to wrestle with her breakup with Floyd, angry that he has apparently moved on. Jack uses old Seinfeld footage to create a digital Jerry Seinfeld to insert into all of NBC's programming only to have an irate Seinfeld arrive to take him on. Tracy discovers his antics have gone too far when his wife kicks him out of the house and Pete continues to live with Liz while estranged from his own wife. But no one is more changed from summer vacation than Jenna Maroney, who has returned from her Broadway show ("Mystic Pizza: The Musical") with a noticeable weight gain.

But soon, Jenna turns her weight gain into celebrity and she is once again more popular than Tracy Jordan. This causes Tracy to rebel, which forces Liz to create a fake award for him. While Liz works to appease the stars and write the show, she is irked when her ex-boyfriend Dennis becomes a New York City celebrity. And with Kenneth's help, Jack vies for the position of head of General Electric, the parent company of NBC. As Jack moves to replace Don Geiss, his nemesis Devin pops back up with an even more dastardly plan: to marry into the Geiss family, despite being gay. But even as Liz learns to cope as a single woman, Jack begins to risk his goals by falling in love with the most unlikely woman possible!

In its second season, 30 Rock hits a real stride. The show, which relied on verbal humor and moments of uncomfortable humor in the first season, expands itself to be funnier through jokes that play as non-sequitors to the main narrative, much like the cutaway gags in Family Guy. The ridiculous flashback jokes add an extra spice to the show that makes it work even better than it did in the first season. As well, in the second season, the jokes are not as telegraphed, so many of the laughs come from more genuine surprises that pop up throughout the show.

Add to that, the cast seems to have a tighter grasp on their characters and as a result, they are more free to play with and grow their characters. This leads to fun bits, like Frank imitating Twofer for an episode and Pete actually having a commanding position. In fact, one of the best twists in a plot comes from the surprise resolution to a plot involving Jenna accidentally burning Kenneth's page's jacket. Kenneth, who has been in conflict with the head page, is forced into a battle with a very unexpected resolution from Pete that is absolutely hilarious.

In its second season, 30 Rock takes a distinctly more serialized tone for the plot and the characters have a chance to evolve far more than in most thirty minute comedies. The DVD set is nice because relevant plot points which build upon one another are referenced and easily understood when the episodes are not spread out over several weeks. The show is pretty tight and does not waste too much time reiterating information most viewers will already have seen and that makes it go faster and seem more substantive.

But largely, 30 Rock is about characters. In the second season, the principle characters include:

Liz Lemon – The beleaguered executive producer of “T.G.S. With Tracy Jordan” finds herself missing her good-guy boyfriend, Floyd. She tries dating and dates a 20 year-old and also is shocked when she meets her professional idol, loses her job because of her and realizes that she is crazy. Vowing not to end up like her, Liz returns to NBC and Jack wanting to invest. She finds herself baby-sitting Tracy when Tracy's wife takes a more active role in his life,

Tracy Jordan – A former movie star, the black actor is now the highlight of Liz Lemon's show, much to Jenna's chagrin. He is as crazy as ever and when his wife cracks down on him, he sneaks out to a strip club and leaves Liz holding the bag. He is aided frequently by the prudish Kenneth and he becomes jealous of Jenna when she wins an award. This leads Tracy to accept the fictitious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Rim Emmys,

Kenneth Parcell - The page at NBC, he is used by all, but mostly Jack who needs him to distract Devin. Kenneth is charged with helping Jenna gain back her weight when she begins to lose it and his berating of her has an unexpected effect. He gets a nemesis in the Head Page and he throws a party which is supposed to be the social event of the season,

Pete Hornberger - The director of “The Girlie Show,” he is a friend to Liz and he is living with her while his marriage is not working. Ironically, he begins to have an affair with his own wife and he steps in when Liz is distracted. During the season finale of "Milf Island," he gets his hand stuck in a candy machine,

Frank Rossitano – One of the writers, he constantly wears ridiculous hats and is deeply sarcastic. He antagonizes Toofer by mocking Harvard and he gets a gay crush on Liz's young boyfriend, even though he is not gay. His is a supporting role,

Jenna Maroney – The costar of “T.G.S.,” she finds real success with a character that stems from her new, fuller figure. Glowing because her face and catchphrase are on t-shirts, she becomes even more of a handful for Liz. Unfortunately for her, her celebrity seems to be dependent upon her keeping her weight up and when she is unable to, she takes out her frustrations on Kenneth,

And Jack Donaghy – The crazy businessman, he loathes his mother, creates a green corporate superhero who goes insane and is vying for the chairmanship of GE. He begins to date a Democratic congresswoman whose agenda is the opposite of his own and that causes real conflicts. He has to give up his cookie jar collection and he makes sure it goes to a good home. But when the opportunity arises for him to take over, something unexpected happens!

In the second season of 30 Rock, the show features a ton of guest stars, though most of them fit right in. So, for example, Steve Buscemi's appearance as a private investigator is appropriately wacky and he plays off Alec Baldwin's Jack perfectly. Carrie Fisher, Andy Richter, Buck Henry and David Schwimmer all have auspicious outings on the show and 30 Rock makes great use of the guest talents. And they even got Jerry Seinfeld for the premiere episode!

As for the regular acting on the show, Alec Baldwin actually reigns supreme as Jack Donaghy. Baldwin reveals a real talent for making subtle facial expressions and making quiet, deadpan deliveries that make Jack one of the funniest characters on television. Baldwin plays off Tracy Morgan's more manic performance perfectly and his interactions with Jack McBrayer (Kenneth) also stand out as consistently hilarious. Moreover, Baldwin has the realistic gravitas to be a credible mentor role to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon.

As for Tina Fey, her performance is more consistent and unchallenging. By the second season of 30 Rock, it seems like she is in an acting rut. Her character is virtually interchangeable with her performance from Date Night or even Baby Mama. She has a sprightly quality and she does the shocked stare thing well enough, but it is nothing we have not seen from her before.

On DVD, several episodes have commentary tracks and they are informative and frequently funny. The deleted scenes extend about seven of the scenes and they are all right. But the real gold for fans is the live presentation of the episode "Secrets And Lies" at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Seeing the cast play the show live to help out the p.a.s who were financially squeezed during the writer's strike is actually very cool. The table read of "Cooter" is also fun because one can compare what made it into the episode and what did not. The segment that has Tina Fey preparing to host Saturday Night Live is a huge disappointment, though, as it shows all of the prep work without the finished episode. The presentation at the Academy Of Television Arts And Sciences makes up for it, though!

Ultimately, 30 Rock Season 2 is funny and it holds up as a worthwhile television season. Anyone who wants to laugh a lot ought to pick this one up, even if they do not have the first season.

For other television programs, please check out my reviews of:
Sports Night


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

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